AMD's New Microserver Runs on Both Intel, AMD Chips

The chip maker unveils combined server and storage hardware, based on technology from the recently acquired SeaMicro, which can run either AMD Opteron or Intel Xeon processors.

SAN FRANCISCO - Underdog processor maker Advanced Micro Devices has given a nod to its market leading competitor Intel by introducing a new microserver that can run on either Intel or AMD processors and is based on technology from SeaMicro, which AMD acquired in February.

The SeaMicro SM15000, with a starting price of $139,000, combines server and storage in one chassis but also, with the help of technology called Freedom Fabric Storage, also connects the micro server to up to 5 petabytes of external storage.

The SM15000 is targeted at large data centers that run search engines, social networking sites or are other users of big data applications based on Apache, Hadoop or Cassandra. For them, current data center architecture no longer meets their needs in a tech industry that "is in a state of foment," said Andrew Feldman, corporate vice president and general manager of the Data Center Server Solutions group at AMD.

"It took J.P. Morgan Chase 110 years to build an organization large enough to be one of the largest single consumers of CPUs in the world. It took Facebook four years," said Feldman, who was CEO of SeaMicro before it was acquired by AMD for $334 million.

While AMD is a rival to Intel in the chip market, it understands that there's a strong market for Intel-based servers and knows it needs to serve that market, too, said Feldman. SM15000's are already available running the Intel Xeon processor dubbed Sandy Bridge. Microservers running the newer Ivy Bridge Xeon processors and a new AMD Opteron processor with a core technology it calls "Piledriver" will be available in November.

SeaMicro used only Intel before it was acquired and can't easily abandon its Intel customers just because it's now part of AMD, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at the research firm Insight 64, nor can it try to sell a product that only serves a portion of the whole server market.

"I think every one of the server suppliers over the last decade has discovered that there are some customers who really like AMD, and there are other customers that really like Intel," Brookwood said. "If you only have one of those solutions, then you're either going to spend a lot of time convincing the customer to go with yours, probably unsuccessfully, or you're not going to get the business at all."

A more interesting question, he said, is how other server vendors are going to react when AMD goes into the server business against them with the SM15000. Such "co-opetition" goes on in the other parts of the tech industry all the time-sometimes causing friction. However, he thinks server vendors such as Dell and Hewlett-Packard could "validate" the SeaMicro platform by rebadging the hardware as their own.

While supporting both processor platforms, AMD's Feldman showed how an AMD-based SM15000 has better specs than an Intel version.

The AMD Opteron-based system has 512 cores, twice as many as one running Intel Ivy Bridge; has 2,024 cores per rack versus Intel's 1,024; and offers 4,096 gigabytes of dynamic RAM per system, versus 2,048GB for the Intel. They both feature 1.28 terabits of Freedom Fabric bandwidth that provides connectivity to the 5 petabytes of external storage.

The SM15000 also houses 64 servers in a single 10-rack unit that is only 17.5 inches high. Feldman told reporters at a news conference Sept. 10 that the new system uses one-fourth the amount of power, takes up one-sixth the space, but delivers 16 times the bandwidth of comparable conventional systems.

SeaMicro officials developed its microservers because they said data center technology has been limited by the development of servers, storage and networking separately rather than together, said Feldman.

"All of us, those who make servers, those who make networking devices and those who make storage, failed to adapt to this new reality that the data center as a whole is a system. And if you focus just on [one area], you'll fail," he said.

The Freedom Fabric is the "secret sauce" in the SM15000, said Patrick Moorhead, president and principal analyst at the research firm Moor Insights and Strategy. Operators of large data centers aren't necessarily looking for lightning-fast processor speeds, but for the scalability and flexibility of the system.

"What you want is to be able to turn cores on and off and share data and memory between multiple racks, but also being able to share data inside the rack as well," said Moorhead. "The chips are good but the fabric is where it's at."

The fabric also seems to be where it's at for Intel officials, who also disclosed that Intel plans to integrate a fabric controller into its Xeon server chips over the next few years, a move the company said would also speed up performance, improve scalability and enhance energy efficiency in data centers.

The AMD news conference was held on the eve of the Intel Developer Forum, also in San Francisco.