Under Competitive Pressure, Intel Builds Low Power Server Chip for a Startup

SeaMicro has introduced its second high-density server that uses 256 dual-core Atom chips crammed into a box in order to deliver power-efficient computing at about one-fourth the power consumption of a traditional rack of machines. But the biggest news about this server is pretty small, namely the dual-core Atom chip Intel (s intc) has manufactured to go inside the SeaMicro box. This is perhaps the first time Intel has built a chip especially for a startup and a sign of how Intel will defend its x86 server territory from rival ARM (s armh).

SeaMicro aims to build a better server using Atom chips and its own specially designed silicon to handle the networking complexity derived from shoving 512 cores (the first box contained 512 processors) into a box. Getting that many cores to allocate resources takes its own brain and access to a compute fabric inside the box capable of delivering 1.28 terabits per second. SeaMicro’s first server was launched last June, but it had a few shortcomings. It only was capable of 32-bit processing (a problem associated with current generation ARM cores that vendors trying to sell ARM-based systems will also have to overcome) and only could access 2 GB of memory.

Most server software is written for 64-bit machines, so folks using 32-bit machines have to adjust their code. As for the memory issue, web services want to store as much information in memory or as close to the processor as possible to improve response times of their services. These changes make the SeaMicro box more competitive with more traditional servers, while still offering power efficiency.

Last June, SeaMicro executives went to Intel asking for something better. Intel came up with a dual-core Atom processor that can deliver 64-bit processing and can address 4 GB of memory. In addition, the new chip allows for more real estate on the motherboard because SeaMicro can still cram 512 cores in its machine but now it uses half the number of chips (see image below). The reduction in components also means a 15- to 17-percent reduction in power usage.

When asked if Intel has built a chip for a startup before, Jason Waxman, general manager of high density computing within Intel’s data center group, stressed that other companies could use the new Atom part and Intel listens to all of its customers when trying to fill out its processor roadmap. However, he did call SeaMicro a “definitional customer,” and said SeaMicro is “someone who is helping us anticipate what some customers want and value, and we always want to see what we can do, and are receptive to exploring.”

And should SeaMicro win selling low-power servers to more customers (existing ones include Skype, France Telecom and Mozilla), Intel stands to win both in terms of sales and by shoring up its x86 architecture inside data centers even as low-power architectures built on ARM cores or other architectures seek to gain a foothold. As for Atom chips being cheaper than the traditional servers chips, that’s true, but Waxman points out that in SeaMicro’s box there are a lot of them, so he’s not worried about cannibalization of the existing Xeon server chip business.

“When a customer is buying a server, they are not buying one server, so the question is how are they going to spend their money, on bigger boxes or smaller boxes,” Waxman said. “And if companies used a shared infrastructure [such as SeaMicro’s box] they may be buying many more pieces of Intel silicon than what is in the traditional server infrastructure. So the trend toward microservers can be good for Intel.”

As for the encroachment of ARM into the server industry, Waxman pointed out that Intel is well aware of the demand for low-power servers as illustrated by its work with SeaMicro as well as 30-watt Xeon chips it offers. And ARM isn’t even in the game yet, he said.

“We haven’t seen any ARM-based products released to the market just yet. There are certainly a number pretty well-known issues in software compatibility — the lack of 64-bit — and to make a server platform that need to be addressed by any new architecture. Our perspective is we want to stay in tune with server customers and this is why we have a great engagement with SeaMicro and its new technology. If customers want something we want to be the first to go address it, which is why when 18 months ago we saw the trend for microservers we said, let’s have products to address it.”

Intel’s efforts to provide a server-appropriate Atom chip for SeaMicro are a big win for the 3.5-year-old hardware maker, but it’s also a sign that Intel won’t let other architectures encroach on its territory.

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