Intel Brings 6-Watt Atom Server SoC to the Data Center

Intel's low-power Atom S1200 chips are aimed at small, energy-efficient microservers, which also are being targeted by ARM and its partners.

Intel officials continue to aggressively expand the reach of its x86-based processors throughout the data center as they look to offer Intel Architecture chips for every workload and to muscle out any potential challenge in servers and other infrastructure systems from ARM Holdings and others.

Intel last month introduced its Xeon Phi coprocessors, aimed at organizations with high-performance computing (HPC) environments and massive systems that run compute-intensive and highly parallel workloads. Many of these organizations have turned to GPU accelerators from the likes of Nvidia and Advanced Micro Devices to help increase performance while keeping power consumption in check. Intel's Xeon Phi coprocessors are being offered as an alternative to GPU accelerators.

Now the giant chip maker is looking at the other end of the data center spectrum. Company officials Dec. 11 unveiled its dual-core Atom S1200 products, a family of low-power (6-watt) systems-on-a-chip (SoCs) that are designed for microservers. Microservers are small, highly energy-efficient systems aimed at extremely dense environments such as dedicated Web hosting facilities, which have to move massive amounts of lightweight workloads, and where power consumption is at a premium. The 6 watts is half what other low-power server chips offer in energy consumption, according to Intel officials.

These computing environments also are where, because of the need for low-power consumption, ARM and its partners—such as Samsung Electronics, Nvidia, Calxeda, Marvell Technologies and now AMD—see an opportunity to move their architectures up the ladder, from the mobile-device space and into the data center.

However, Intel executives see a clear advantage in their Atom platform, which offers a host of capabilities—from 64-bit computing and virtualization support to Error Correcting Code (ECC) and greater memory capacity—that are crucial to servers and won't appear in ARM-designed chips until late 2013 at the latest, and more like 2014. In addition, because Atom is based on the x86 architecture, it comes with familiar software and developers' tools. It is a similar argument Intel executives use when talking about Xeon Phi—also based on x86—when compared with graphics accelerators.

The Atom S1200 chips—along with the family of Xeon E3, E5 and E7 chips, the Xeon Phi coprocessors, and the company's networking technologies—give Intel complete coverage of data center workloads, Diane Bryant, vice president and general manager of Intel's Data Center and Connected Systems Group, said during a Webcast press conference Dec. 11. In addition, the new Atom SoCs also can be used in storage and communications and networking appliances, Bryant said.

"Whatever the workload is, it works best on Intel Architecture," she said.