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Arm Server Update, Winter 2020 Edition

In the months since our last update, as usual, much has changed in the Arm Server ecosystem!  When assessing the industry and product performance in such an emerging field, things move fast!  Here are few observations and notes on the second half of 2019, and a look ahead to what to is forthcoming in 2020 for Arm Servers.

First, Marvell has continued to focus on the HPC market, and has promoted their ThunderX2 processor in talks, marketing materials, and social media posts focused on their National Laboratory projects and installations.  There is also some preliminary talk about their next generation product, the ThunderX3, though details are limited at the time of this writing.  In a sign of confidence, Arm directly invested a significant sum of money in the Marvell Arm Server processor as well.

Meanwhile, Ampere has had continued success with their eMag processor, including server sales through Lenovo, and a Workstation version of the platform now available as well.  Similar to Marvell, Ampere has begun to discuss their next generation processor as well, stating that it will have 80 cores, and will be based on the Arm Neoverse N1 reference architecture.  Again similar to Marvell, Arm has also invested directly in Ampere to keep momentum and product development strong, and more recently Oracle has invested as well.

Amazon has been competing strongly in the Arm Server market for the past year with their Graviton platform, which powers the AWS A1 Instance Type.  At the re:Invent conference, Amazon announced the Graviton2 processor, which will be available soon, and increases the core count to 64 and “deliver 7x performance, 4x the number of compute cores, 2x larger caches, and 5x faster memory compared to the first-generation Graviton processors” according to Amazon.

The last item to make note of is the SolidRun Honeycomb platform, which is technically marketed as a Developer Workstation, but could quite easily be adapted to a small server.  It offers a 16-core NXP Layerscape SoC, 4x 10gb Ethernet, SATA, PCIe, and a standard mini-ITX footprint.

As usual, if you have anything to add to the conversation, simply add your comments below, and we will continue to offer analysis and insight to all things Arm Servers!

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Hosted Raspberry Pi 4 Servers, Coming Soon

Can a Raspberry Pi 4 function as a server?

Since it’s launch in June, many people have been wondering whether a Raspberry Pi 4 can take on the role of a small server. With 2gb or 4gb of RAM now available on the boards, and a significantly faster Arm processor than the previous model, a Raspberry Pi 4 Server is absolutely possible!

Longtime followers will know that miniNodes has been hosting Arm Server single board computers for years, and may already realize that our current Raspberry Pi Servers are typically sold out. Demand for them has always exceeded our capacity (sorry about that!), and customers have realized that they function great as lightweight servers for certain use-cases. Testing code and applications on Arm processors for compatibility, running simple services that don’t need a lot of CPU / compute power, early IoT product development work, Edge node and gateway workload testing, and bare-metal (non-shared) access are some of the reasons users have been drawn to our hosted Raspberry Pi’s. However, the capability of the nodes is certainly modest with their 1gb of RAM and Cortex A53 cores.

Enter the Raspberry Pi 4 Server

The Raspberry Pi Foundation caught the world by surprise when it released the new Raspberry Pi 4 board a few months ago. As mentioned, it came with increased RAM, a faster processor, gigabit networking, and USB 3.0 ports. These upgrades directly addressed the performance and connectivity shortcomings of the previous generation, though “shortcomings” is probably unfair when talking about a computer the size of a credit card and costing only $35. However, with these new components, the Raspberry Pi 4 is a very capable machine, and more specifically with a quad-core Cortex-A72, 4gb of RAM, and USB3 attached storage it is certainly able to fulfill the role of a small server. Content and data caching, IoT data collection and aggregation, extreme-edge compute environments, small office branches, archival storage, email relaying, (small) in-memory NoSQL datasets, and many other purpose-fit workloads are entirely possible!

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As also mentioned, miniNodes has been involved in the Arm Server ecosystem for many years, and we have a lot of experience with the challenges of hosting single board computers. The biggest issue for most long-term Raspberry Pi users, and other similar SBC’s without onboard storage, is that SD Cards wear out and fail. SD Cards were never designed to have constant and continual reading and writing, such as occurs when a full operating system is installed and running on them. SD Card failure leads to the Pi crashing, with potential for data corruption and data loss. Another major hurdle when deploying Raspberry Pi’s in a cloud hosting environment is the lack of native management, remote console access, or other typical hardware control mechanisms found on traditional servers. In fact, even placing single board computers in a datacenter is a challenge, with voltage, physical dimensions, port placement, and cabling very different from a standard 1U or 2U server chassis.

But, with some creative engineering and subject matter expertise, miniNodes is going to address these challenges and build an infrastructure to allow the Raspberry Pi 4 and other single board computers to function in a cloud server capacity that is similar to the user experience developers are already familiar with.

(Small) Arm Cloud Servers

It will take a few months, and some trial and error along the way, but our current plan is to tackle each previously identified challenge and come up with a solution that is both scalable and customer-friendly. First and foremost, we need to move storage off of the SD Card, and onto a more robust medium. Thus, a new NAS system (also running on Arm!) is being developed, where each node’s OS will live, allowing higher performance, greater reliability, and data replication. Next, the ability to remotely power cycle nodes is being built, by a power distribution and relay that can change states upon user command. Cabling, cooling, and rack mounting are also under active development, with power, networking, and the physical layout of the boards in a 2U server chassis being optimized.

A lot has been written about the heat produced by the Pi 4, and placing lots of them in a server chassis is not going to help, so we are doing careful analysis of the thermal properties of the boards, and experimenting with heatsinks and fans, as well as the placement, direction, and airflow across the boards in the chassis. Internal temperature monitoring (and alerting) is also being developed for the chassis, to ensure intervention can occur if needed.

Here are some of our first experiments with cooling solutions:

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Raspberry-Pi-4-Server-2

Raspberry-Pi-4-Server-3

Finally, a complete re-architecting of the miniNodes website and management portal is needed to interface with the new components, so a website rebuild and a new user interface will be rolled out as well.

These exciting changes will result in a better customer experience, improved products and services, and higher performing nodes. We’ll keep this blog updated with the latest information and developments (and lessons learned) as we continue to make progress on the project, but early estimates are that we will be ready for launch sometime in Q1 2020. As much as we’d like to offer our Raspberry Pi 4 Servers sooner, we want to make sure we do it right, and are able to give customers an improved service to go along with the improved boards.

Stay tuned, and, if there are other Arm devices you’d like to see included, just let us know. You can find us tweeting here https://twitter.com/mininodes, or, just shoot an email to info at mininodes.com.

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miniNodes ARM Innovators Program Interview

The full Arm Innovators Program interview is now posted, and we are proud to be highlighted by Arm for our innovations in the Arm Server ecosystem!

As you can see, we are currently prototyping a Raspberry Pi Cluster PCB that will hold 5 Raspberry Pi Computer on Module (CoM) boards, with a power input and ethernet switch built in.

This Raspberry Pi Cluster Board will allow the Docker, Kubernetes, OpenFasS, Minio, and other cluster projects to easily develop, test, and build their software in a cheap and convenient way, with no cabling mess.  Home automation, IoT, and hardware hacking are other potential uses for the board.

We’re still a few weeks away from launching, but keep watching this space as we will be sure to make an announcement as soon as it is ready!

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