Intel: 'Avoton' Atom Chips for Microservers Are Sampling With OEMs

The next generation of low-power Atom chips for microservers is due in the second half of 2013, ahead of rival ARM's chips aimed at the data center.

Intel officials will be talking low-power microservers at their Intel Developer Forum this week in Beijing, including unveiling more details about "Avoton," the next-generation Atom processor aimed at the burgeoning market segment.

Executives first mentioned Avoton last year even as they prepared to launch Centerton, the first Atom system-on-a-chip (SoC) aimed at the low-power server space. Avoton is built on Intel's 22-nanometer manufacturing process and will come with the chip giant's new Silvermont microarchitecture.

According to Lisa Graff, vice president and general manager of the Datacenter Marketing Group within Intel's Datacenter and Connected Systems Group, the Avoton chips have been powered on and are now sampling with server makers. It will launch in the second half of the year.

Avoton is part of a larger push by Intel to rapidly grow its line of low-power Atom SoCs that are designed to run in a number of different devices, from smartphones and tablets to embedded systems and microservers. In most of these markets, Intel is competing with chips designed by ARM Holdings and made by such vendors as Samsung Electronics, Nvidia, Qualcomm and Texas Instruments.

ARM chips power more than 90 percent of the smartphones and tablets in the booming mobile device space. At the same time, ARM officials see an opportunity for their low-power chips in the microserver segment, which is expected to see strong growth in the coming years. Large Web-based businesses like Facebook, Google and Amazon, which run massive, dense data centers, are looking for smaller, low-power, high-performing servers to run their huge numbers of small workloads and cut costs related to space, energy and operational expenses.

A number of chip makers, such as Calxeda and Marvell Technologies, already are offering ARM-based server chips. However, those chips are 32-bit, and most data center workloads require 64-bit chips. Intel's x86-based Atom processors are 64-bit devices.

ARM will have 64-bit capabilities—as well as other necessary server features, including greater virtualization support and more memory—with its upcoming ARMv8 architecture. However, that architecture is not expected until later this year or early next year, and systems with ARMv8-based chips will start hitting the market in volume in 2014.

Intel officials see that as a key advantage—along with such factors as programmers' familiarity with Intel tools—and note that by the time the first systems based on the ARMv8 architecture come into the market, they will be competing with microservers running on the second-generation Atom chips.

"By the end of 2013, we will have four 64-bit Atom products" for different systems, including microservers, Intel's Graff said during a recent press briefing about what Intel executives will talk about at IDF. They will offer demonstrations of Avoton-based servers during the show.

ARM executives in the past have noted Intel's dominance in the server market, but have said they expect to start chipping away at some of that massive market share starting in 2014. Some top-tier OEMs also see an opportunity for ARM chips in the data center.

Hewlett-Packard in November 2011 announced a partnership with Calxeda to build ultra low-power servers based on ARM chips as part of the vendor's larger Project Moonshot. However, last year HP officials said the first of the low-power Gemini microservers to come out of the initiative would be based on Intel's Centeron chips. The first of these Centerton-based systems were supposed to be launched by the end of 2012, though HP has yet to release them. An Intel spokesman noted that the Centerton chips were launched in December 2012.

HP officials are scheduled to announce systems developed within Project Moonshot during a Webcast event April 8.

In addition, Dell also is working with both Marvell and Calxeda in developing low-power servers powered by ARM chips. Like their counterparts with HP, Dell officials have said there is a role for ARM in the data center, particularly in the types of data centers run by the likes of Facebook, Google and Microsoft.

Chip maker Advanced Micro Devices, which has been competing for years with Intel in the x86 chip space, announced last year that it will also begin offering server chips based on ARM's architecture in 2014 to go along with the x86-based Opterons it currently sells.

Samsung reportedly also is building up its server chip capabilities in its Austin, Texas, facilities.