SeaMicro is All-Intel Atom, at Least For Now

SeaMicro officials say Intel's new dual-core Atom N570 chip is by far the best processor for low-power servers. But they also say they will keep an eye on other chip platforms as they become available.

Server startup SeaMicro is taking advantage of the performance and energy efficiency of Intel's newest Atom processor to unveil its next-generation system that executives say will enable the company to address 95 percent of the server market.

Intel's dual-core Atom N570 chip will help SeaMicro's new SM10000-64 address 64-bit workloads, grow its addressable memory from 2GB to 4GB, and offer greater support for virtualization than the company's first system, which it rolled out in June 2010.

However, while no other processor on the market can match what the Atom platform offers, SeaMicro is keeping its eyes on the growing number of chip makers looking to bring new high-performing, energy-efficient processors into the data center in the coming years, according to founder and CEO Andrew Feldman.

In an interview with eWEEK, Feldman said SeaMicro has in its labs a wide range of processors that could possibly fit into the company's push to offer the most power-efficient high-performing server on the market. However, to this point, Intel's new Atom N570 "is the best by far. [Intel is] going to have to fight to keep that mantle, but today there is nothing better," he said.

Thanks to the growth of such technologies as cloud computing and virtualization, and the rise of such mobile devices as smartphones and tablets, the chip market is in a state of flux. Intel for well over a year has been pushing to grow its business beyond PCs and servers, looking to drive its x86-base Atom platform into the mobile-computing arena. For example, in October 2010, Intel CEO Paul Otellini said the company would quickly become a major player in the tablet space.

However, at the same time, ARM Holdings, which designs most of the chips that run tablets, smartphones and other mobile devices, plans to push its processors into the server space in such hyperscale environments as cloud computing. ARM CEO Warren East, in an interview with Bloomberg News in December 2010, said that server makers are "actively considering ARM architectures" and that ARM-based chips will begin to eat away at Intel's dominant server share by 2014.

In September, ARM officials unveiled the Cortex-A15 chip design that will include such enterprise-level features as support for virtualization, more memory capacity and a fivefold increase in performance, without driving up the power envelope. The design also will support as many as 16 cores.

Chip makers like Samsung, Texas Instruments and Qualcomm use ARM designs to build processors for mobile devices. However, a growing number are looking to move up the ladder. Marvell in November began showing off its upcoming quad-core ARM-based Armada XP platform. In addition, a small company called Calxeda also is working on server chips based on ARM's Cortex-A9 design, with plans to release samples this year and start manufacturing processors in 2012.

When asked about these plans around ARM designs, SeaMicro's Feldman noted that there are no ARM-based server chips out there yet, but as they begin to reach the market, this company will take a look at them. Given the relatively simple design of SeaMicro's systems-they contain only the memory, SeaMicro ASIC and the chip-adopting a new processing platform would be little more than taking the Intel chip out and putting a new ARM processor in its place, he said.

Until something better comes along, though, Intel's Atom is significantly better than anything else on the market, Feldman said.

The new SM10000-64 is an important step up from the previous SM100000 system released last summer. Ninety-five percent of the x86 market runs 64-bit applications, he said. With only the 32-bit capabilities of the first server, it was difficult for SeaMicro to expand its customer base. That said, the company has got customers on four continents, and tens of millions of Internet users touch upon SeaMicro technology every day, according to the 75-employee company.

Those numbers should grow quickly with the new SM10000-64, Feldman said.

"To get to 64-bit and get to 95 percent of the market ... is phenomenal," he said, adding that SeaMicro systems are no longer a niche product. The company's initial success was based on "a collection of people in such pain [over rapidly rising power and operating costs that they were] willing to recompile [their software] back to 32-bit. There also were customers who weren't [willing to recompile], who told us, -Come back when you get to 64-bit.'"

Along with the high performance and low power consumption, using Intel's new Atom chip enables SeaMicro to increase the density of its offerings, putting 512 1.66GHz core into a 10U (17.5-inch) system. The SeaMicro servers offer high performance while using a quarter of the power and a quarter of the floor space compared with traditional servers.

Using the dual-core Atom N570 also opens up more space on the server motherboard, which can be used for other technologies while also helping to drive down power costs, Feldman said.