Over the past few weeks, months, even years, I’ve seen and heard a lot of contradictory “facts” and rumors about Windows on ARM (WOA), Windows RT, ARM servers, and ARM application compatibility. So let’s lay all the rumors and speculation to rest, with a crash course on ARM and what it means to enterprises.
What is ARM?
ARM is a reduced instruction set computer (RISC) architecture made by ARM Holdings plc that is used in almost every smartphone and tablet made today. Over the next three years, market allowing, it’s set to make an entrance into the server, notebook, and desktop computer markets.
What operating systems support ARM?
Previously, only Linux-based operating systems (such as Google’s Android) supported ARM. That changed with Microsoft’s Windows RT operating system for ARM PCs. Windows Server does not currently support ARM chips. So upcoming low-power ARM-based server products from Dell and HP will, for the time being, be Linux-only.
Windows Server 2012 R1, slated to land in the next couple months, is not expected to support ARM processors. However, with the key Windows kernel ported to run on ARM chips, Windows Server 2012 R2 is widely expected to add support for the new architecture. There’s some official guidance lending credibility to this hypothesis; ARM announced it is working with Microsoft to add support for 64-bit ARM server chips in Windows by 2014. And 2014 is about when Server 2012 R2 is expected to debut.
But what about my apps?
If you have the source, compiling simple apps to work with Windows RT should be a snap. Microsoft has ported most of its libraries (such as DirectX) to Windows RT, so there should be no real issues on that front. However, there are some changes to the low-level access that apps are granted -- which is why some developers like Mozilla are crying foul. Will your apps work? In most cases, yes; in some specialized cases, no. Experienced developers will be able to tell you the difference based on your particular code.
If you do not have the source code, a similar principle applies. Consider that the developer of the application will need to recompile it for ARM. Most major apps -- for example, the Adobe Suite or Microsoft Office Suite -- have already been recompiled and made available for Windows RT or will be soon. For non-license users, requesting an ARM executable may come with a fee attached; for license users, you should generally expect no extra cost. Beware: Some smaller app developers may be slower to make their programs available for the new architecture.
Windows on ARM or Linux on ARM are inherently no more or less manageable than their x86 peers. However, today most management tools for ARM tend to fall under the mobile device management (MDM) category and are built for Linux (Android) or Unix-like operating systems (iOS).
Windows RT comes with some basic management support, but there is a legitimate void in management software for Windows on ARM. Fortunately, we can expect that void to be filled shortly, though, as developers address the market's need.
It’s tempting to overlook ARM, given the unclear information, obvious difficulties, and potentially long waits. However, you’re likely already managing ARM devices if you manage your employees’ mobile devices.
ARM has certain advantages over x86. It’s inherently more power-efficient and cheaper (because it has less transistors). It follows the new paradigm of small, efficient, and abundant cores, which goes hand-in-hand with heavy-multithreading and virtualization. And now, virtually all the power players of the operating system world -- Microsoft, RedHat, Canonical, Google, and Apple (among others) -- have committed to ARM offerings.
With AMD’s recent news that it will build 64-bit ARM Opterons, business leaders should recognize the market is changing. In the server space, ARM has no product for you today. But don’t let misinformation confuse you: The world’s top chipmakers (with one big exception) have thrown their weight behind ARM. The market is shifting. Prepare yourself for that shift by learning to effectively manage ARM-architecture mobile devices and keeping a careful eye on the product pipeline.
— Jason Mick is senior news editor at the independent tech news site DailyTech.