Intel Chips to Challenge AMD, ARM in Microservers

Intel this year will introduce low-power Xeon and ARM chips aimed at microservers, which will become increasingly popular in cloud and Web 2.0 environments.

Intel executives are preparing to release server chips that will be aimed at low-power systems and microservers, which are growing in popularity in large Web farms and cloud computing environments.

At the Intel Developer Forum (IDF) in Beijing, Intel unveiled plans for a low-power, dual-core processor based on its Atom processor technology and a slightly more powerful Xeon chip that will be based on the new €œIvy Bridge€ microarchitecture and feature the chip maker€™s new 3D Tri-Gate transistor technology.

According to reports, the Atom-based system-on-a-chip (SoC)€”dubbed €œCenterton€€”will be aimed at the microserver market, which is getting attention from enterprises and vendors alike. Web 2.0 companies like Google and Facebook, and cloud server providers are building massive, very dense data centers with servers designed to move extremely high numbers of small workloads. They are looking for systems with high numbers of cores that are both space and power efficient.

Some analysts have said microservers could soon grow into about 10 percent of the overall server market.

Intel executives apparently are looking to leverage their Atom platform, which started out as chips for netbooks. However, Intel has expanded its use of Atom into everything from smartphones and tablets to embedded systems. According to reports, Centerton, which will roll out in the second half of this year, will be a 6-watt, 32-nm chip with 64-bit capabilities and support for large amounts of memory.

At IDF, Intel executives also talked about Ivy Bridge-based Xeon chips with the Tri-Gate transistor architecture, saying they could come before the Centerton chips. The Tri-Gate architecture is designed to offer a bump in performance€”about 37 percent€”while reducing power consumption by half. The new Xeons reportedly will replace the current Sandy Bridge-based Xeon E3 chips, and also will initially target microservers.

The giant chip maker had been partnering with SeaMicro in building out extremely dense, low-power systems. SeaMicro over the past few years has been selling Atom-based microservers that can hold more than 1,000 cores in a single rack. SeaMicro officials, in designing the systems, have stripped the traditional motherboard of 90 percent of its components, such as Ethernet network interface cards and BIOS chips, that officials say consume power but aren€™t needed. What remains is a motherboard that includes a processor, double data rate type 3 (DDR3) dynamic RAM from Samsung and SeaMicro's Freedom Fabric ASIC fabric chip, which handles networking and virtualization.

Earlier this year, SeaMicro and Intel had unveiled similar microservers running Intel€™s low-power quad-core Xeon E3-1260L chips.

However, rival Advanced Micro Devices threw a wrench in Intel€™s plans in February, when officials there announced they were buying SeaMicro for $334 million. The move at once gave AMD a larger presence in the microserver market while dealing a blow to Intel. Intel officials dismissed the acquisition.

"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,€ Diane Bryant, vice president and general manager of Intel€™s Datacenter and Connected Systems Group, said at the time. €œWe€™ve been also collaborating extensively with HP on low-power servers and scale-out software research."

ARM Holdings, whose low-power chip designs are found in most smartphones and tablets, also is eyeing the microserver space. The company last year introduced its ARMv8 architecture, which will include such key server-level features as 64-bit capabilities and greater virtualization support. However, products with those chips are not expected to hit the market until 2014.

But some ARM manufacturing partners, including Marvell Technologies, Nvidia and Calxeda, already are working on server chips based on the ARM architecture. And some top-tier OEMs are taking notice. Dell officials have said they have run ARM-based prototype servers in their labs, and Hewlett-Packard has partnered with Calxeda to build very low-power servers as part of its larger Project Moonshot.