HP Opts for Intel Atom Centerton Chip for Low-Power Gemini Servers

The first systems from HP's Project Moonshot initiative will run on Intel's Centerton low-power Atom platform rather than ARM chips.

Hewlett-Packard is moving ahead with Intel in developing extremely low-power servers as part of its Project Moonshot initiative, opting initially for the chip maker€™s Atom-based Centerton platform rather than ARM processor technology.

Project Moonshot was first introduced in November 2011, with most of the headlines centering on HP€™s partnership with Calxeda to eventually incorporate the chip maker€™s ARM-based EnergyCore processors into future low-power servers as part of the initiative.

However, the first servers that will roll out as part of Project Moonshot will be powered by the Centerton systems-on-a-chip (SoCs), which Intel introduced in April. Centerton will offer many of the data center features€”from 64-bit capabilities to virtualization support to error-correcting code (ECC) memory€”that ARM processors currently lack.

In announcing the upcoming Gemini servers June 19, executives for both HP and Intel noted such features, as well as wide software support, in the 32nm Centerton SoCs, which will offer a power envelope of 6 watts. The initial Gemini servers will begin shipping in early production by the end of the year.

Analysts weren€™t surprised that HP would opt for Intel initially for the low-power systems.

€œThis announcement today that the first €¦ servers will be based on Intel€™s Atom processor is a win for Intel, which has been arguing about the value of x86 in low-power servers for a while,€ Charles King, principal analyst for Pund-IT Research, told eWEEK.

King also noted that it€™s a good move for both HP and its developer community as well. ARM-based systems eventually will appear, but enabling developers to start off with familiar x86 tools is important, he said.

Systems makers are looking to build very low-power servers€”some call them €œmicroservers€€”that can address the increasing demand among Web 2.0 companies, hosting firms and other organizations with very dense data centers for highly energy-efficient systems that can process massive amounts of smaller workloads. It€™s an area that Intel has been pushing in for more than three years, and one that ARM executives and their manufacturing partners see as a growth area.

Dell has rolled out some microservers, and in May announced it was partnering with ARM chip maker Marvell Technologies in developing its Copper systems based on that architecture. Advanced Micro Devices in February spent $334 million to buy SeaMicro, a company that built very low-power servers based on the Atom platform.

Paul Santeler, vice president and general manager of the Hyperscale Business Unit in HP€™s Industry-Standard Servers and Software business said during the conference call announcing Gemini that Project Moonshot came out of HP Labs, where researchers started looking for ways to leverage the features of CPUs found in notebooks and mobile devices for low-power servers.

The Gemini servers and the larger Project Moonshot will drive big changes in the industry, Santeler said.

€œThis is a paradigm shift,€ he said. €œThis is a new way to address this part of the market. It€™s revolutionary.€

Santeler talked about very low-power €œserver cartridges€ that will be in a new enclosure that can house thousands of servers, all of them sharing resources, such as management, networking, storage, power cords and cooling fans in a federated environment. The environment is being designed to be processor-neutral, promising a time when the enclosures will be able to run server cartridges powered by Intel, ARM and other architectures at the same time. Santeler said HP envisions server cartridges that can be removed and replaced to address different workloads as needed.

The end result will be systems that drive down energy costs, space and complexity, while offering the density and performance that is needed in such hyperscale environments.

Journalists at the press conference in San Francisco saw a demonstration of a Gemini system running Centerton-based server cartridges. The demonstration showed the system running the Project Moonlight Website on one screen, while running workloads on another. Santeler said a traditional Xeon-based system running similar workloads would consume about 150 watts of power; the Centerton-based system€™s power consumption was between 12 and 14 watts.

The demo system is being used in HP€™s Discovery lab in Houston, and will soon be available for customers to test, according to HP.

Jason Waxman, general manager of cloud infrastructure with Intel€™s Data Center and Connected Systems Group, touted the historically tight partnership between Intel and HP, and the promise for future ultra-low-power systems beyond Gemini. Waxman noted that next year, Intel will be manufacturing 22nm Atom processors, enabling even lower power consumption.

He said Intel has come on strong in recent years in embracing the need to drive down the power consumption in its processors, noting that the company now offers Xeon server chips with power envelopes as low as 17 watts.

€œA few years ago, we thought €˜low power€™ meant 65-watt Xeons,€ Waxman said. €œWe€™ve come a long way since then.€

ARM executives are looking to leverage the company€™s low-power heritage in mobile devices to eventually move into the data center. They expect to make strides in 2013 or 2014, when chips based on the ARM v8 architecture€”which includes 64-bit computing and virtualization support, among other data center features€”become available.

Pund-IT€™s King said the evolution of ARM in the data center will probably mirror the gradual growth of Linux in the enterprise.

€œI€™d expect to see a similar kind of movement around ARM, but it ain€™t there yet,€ he said.

Project Moonshot was one of three initiatives introduced by HP in November 2011 designed to change how business computing is done. While Project Moonshot focuses on the low-power field, Project Odyssey addresses the high-end by enabling mission-critical workloads to run on both Itanium-based Integrity serves and Xeon-based ProLiant systems in the same enclosure. Project Voyager is being touted as an effort to increase the amount of intelligence in enterprise systems, with the recently released ProLiant Gen8 servers as the first step in the initiative.