Arm-ed for the future? How AWS is offering ‘cheap cloud’

Arm-dominated data centers in the next few years? AWS offers cheap Arm instances, so start your testing now.
12 December 2018

Responsibility in the cloud is proving a challenge. Source: Shutterstock

Amazon’s AWS has launched a new cloud computing service aimed at cost-conscious users keen to extract the maximum bang for their buck from the provider.

The cloud giant has done this by designing its own Arm chip– perhaps enabled to do so by its acquisition of Annapurna Labs in 2015. Annapurna is an Arm system-on-chip specialist, and it’s behind the custom chips that AWS uses to undertake second-tier tasks like storage and networking, leaving the main EC2 x86 chipsets to undertake heavy processor lifting.

Customers using x86 EC2 instances should, therefore, be able to see performance gains as the x86 cores can be 100-percent dedicated to app workloads.

The self-designed chips, codenamed Graviton, are 64-bit server ASICS and are available for rent now – Amazon claims the A1 family of processors now deployed are around 45 percent cheaper for users to run than x86 virtual instances.

According to a post on AWS’s website, “They are a great fit for scale-out workloads where you can share the load across a group of smaller instances. This includes containerized microservices, web servers, development environments, and caching fleets.”

Those organizations thinking about shifting over to the new platform on purely cost grounds would do well, however, to consider the options available to experiment with here on AWS’s own use-cost calculator.

At present, the EC2 A1 instances are limited to four regions– US East (Northern Virginia), US East (Ohio), US West (Oregon), and Europe (Ireland)– and run apps for RHEL (Red Hat Enterprise Linux), Ubuntu and Amazon Linux.

If apps are written in a scripting or interpreted language, they will, in all likelihood, port over to the new instance type quite happily, but will need to be rewritten if they compile to machine-native code. Even in the event of a seemingly-seamless transition, customers would be well advised to undertake comprehensive testing before live rollouts on the new platform.

Red Hat’s John Masters said, on Medium:

“Standardization is why operating systems like RHEL, Fedora, CentOS, and others can ‘just work’ on Arm server platforms such as those announced by Amazon today. In fact, if you didn’t look very closely, you might not at first even notice that you were using an Arm server. That was by design. And standardization will be key to the next wave during which many others building cloud offerings will (finally) realize the benefits that come from being able to build and deploy their own Arm server solutions.”

Arm processors continue to dominate the mobile device market, and alongside AMD’s Epyc, will increasingly challenge Intel’s x86 dominance of the data center. 18 months ago, Microsoft indicated that it wanted more than half of its cloud data center capacity might be powered by 64-bit Arm servers in the foreseeable future.

Now might be the time to start testing business applications on the new chips, or begin the process of assessment to judge whether a re-engineering is viable or represents value for money.