It wasn’t that long ago that there was a widespread expectation that x86-based servers would soon be displaced in corporate data centers, and in the cloud, by servers that use ARM processors. But so far, things haven’t turned out that way. Servers using x86 chips still maintain a more than 90 percent market share. As Intel spokesman William Moss notes, “There has been a lot of hype about ARM in the datacenter, but very few deployments.”

ARM chips, which are RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computer) processors, already dominate the mobile device market. They are widely used in such products as smartphones, laptops, and tablet computers. But their penetration of the server market has so far been minimal. And Linus Torvalds, the creator of the Linux kernel, thinks he knows why.

“What matters is all the infrastructure around the instruction set, and x86 has all that infrastructure,” Torvalds says. “Being compatible just wasn’t as big of a deal for the ARM ecosystem as it has been traditionally for the x86 ecosystem.”

In the world of Android-based mobile devices, the environment in which ARM chips have flourished, there is little standardization between manufacturers. Because the chipsets and hardware configurations of the various smartphones and tablets are unique to single products or product lines, the support infrastructure for ARM implementations is very fragmented. For example, it’s not possible to create a single Android update build that can be deployed across the devices of multiple manufacturers.

On the other hand, the x86 ecosystem has more than 30 years of development behind it, and standards are well understood and widely adhered to. That means it simply takes a lot less time and expense to develop and support x86 server environments than if ARM processors were used.

That’s not to say that the dominance of x86 in the data center is unassailable. IBM, for example, is making a determined effort to grab an increasing share of the server market with its own line of RISC processors, the Power8 and upcoming Power9 products.

But for the moment, x86 remains king of the data center realm.

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