Intel executives on the last day in January lauded SeaMicro for its ability to develop low-power microservers that could leverage not only the chip makers energy-efficient Atom chips, but also its more powerful Xeon processors.
"It's not an easy thing to go and do," Jason Waxman, vice president and general manager of Intel's Data Center Business Unit, said during a Jan. 31 press conference, where MicroServer officials unveiled their new Xeon-powered SM-10000 system.
Fast-forward several weeks, and much has changed. Rival Advanced Micro Devices announced Feb. 29 its intention to buy SeaMicro for about $334 million, a move that at once expands AMDs portfolio of low-power server technology, while taking away a partner from Intel. It also was the latest move under new CEO Rory Read, who is looking to reinvigorate AMD and broaden its reach. It also fed ongoing speculation that AMD eventually will license low-power, non-x86 chip designs from ARM Holdings, whose highly energy-efficient chips are found in most smartphones and tablets, but who also is eyeing the low-power server space.
AMDs move to acquire SeaMicro impressed many industry observers, who said it gave the chip maker a push forward in the low-power server space, which is becoming increasingly popular, particularly in such environments as Web 2.0 and cloud computing. However, it didnt impress Intel officials, who have since dismissed both the deal and SeaMicros fabric technology, a key part of its highly dense server designs.
Speaking during a press conference following Intels March 6 announcement of its new Xeon E5-2600 server processor, Diane Bryant, vice president and general manager of Intels Datacenter and Connected Systems Group, said the company took a look at the idea of buying SeaMicro and passed.
"We just looked at SeaMicro's fabric, Bryant said. There were very few people they didn't shop their solution to. They came to us and asked if we would be interested in it, or in licensing the technology. We were not impressed, and we declined. Very soon after, we saw that our competitor bought it."
If AMDs move shook Intel at all, Bryant wasnt saying. "We have a very robust and compelling road map for this [microserver] market, and we partner with Dell, Supermicro, NEC and Hitachi with others to be announced soon. Weve been also collaborating extensively with HP on low-power servers and scale-out software research," Bryant said.
SeaMicro has created microservers that can hold more than 1,000 cores in a single 10U rack. The new SM10000-XE holds 64 low-power quad-core Xeon E3-1260L chips, giving the system 1,024 cores in a standard rack. In designing the systems, SeaMicro has stripped the traditional motherboard of about 90 percent of its components, including Ethernet network interface cards and BIOS chips, that officials say consume power but arent needed.
What's left is a motherboard that includes a processor, double data rate type three (DDR3) dynamic RAM from Samsung and SeaMicro's Freedom Fabric application-specific IC (ASIC) fabric chip, which handles networking and virtualization.
Analysts applauded AMDs decision to buy SeaMicro. The strategic goal is a differentiated server architecture into which it can insert AMD silicon and IP, Forrester analyst Richard Fichera said in a blog post Feb. 29. Since this architecture is initially targeted at dense computing environments, such as those found in Web 2.0, cloud service providers and similar workloads, as well as potentially at conventional HPC, the prospects for AMD are interesting.
Charles King, principal analyst with Pund-IT Research, said in a research note that SeaMicros Freedom Fabric is really the jewel in the crown of the AMD deal. Not only should the Freedom technology bolster AMDs considerable efforts in high performance and supercomputing, but the companys OEM customers that are focused on those and related cloud and Web 2.0 markets (which is to say, most all of them) will likely consider the technology a valuable addition to their solution quivers. That should help enrich AMD in the short term but could also help polish the companys image as far-thinking innovator.
AMD could also license the fabric technology to other vendors. AMD spokesman Phil Hughes told Wired.com that SeaMicro, with its fabric, greatly enhances his companys capabilities. With the acquisition of SeaMicro, we believe we will have the best server IP portfolio in the marketplace, Hughes said.
Intel is not sitting still. Several officials have said since the AMD deal was announced that Intel is hard at work at its own fabric technology, and analysts have pointed out that Intel has bought some networking vendorssuch as Fulcrum Microsystemswhose technology would lend themselves to fabric development.
Intel is also likely disappointed [with the AMD-SeaMicro deal], but its 2011 acquisition of 10GbE player Fulcrum Microsystems and increasing focus on robust networking solutions means that Intel may be able to respond with a competitive high-performance fabric technology far sooner than many assume, King wrote.
Chip makers and OEMs alike are looking for ways to offer low-power systems that can quickly move workloads in Web 2.0 and cloud environments. For example, Hewlett-Packard is working with Calxeda, which makes chips based on ARM designs, to create such servers for its Project Moonshot, an initiative to create extremely low-power systems to run in massive computing environments.