Chips for Servers, Intel Hits Ultra-Low Power Point

Wednesday, April 11th 2012. | Hardware News

intel-logoIntel has seemed a little ambivalent about growth prospects for an emerging class of computers dubbed micro servers. If they do take off, though, Intel plans to have just the chips for them.

The company, at gathering in Beijing, unveiled plans for a calculating engine for such machines based on the same Atom processor design used in low-end laptops. Dubbed Centerton, the new “system on a chip” draws less power than prior members of the Atom family and much less than the Intel Xeon chips used in most servers.

Power is paramount in micro servers. The new machines have been adopted by some companies that need many systems to do simple jobs–like serving up gazillions of Web pages–and don’t want their electricity bills going through the roof.

SeaMicro, a startup recently purchased by Intel rival Advanced Micro Devices, started used Atom chips on its own for micro servers. The quest has even caused some server makers to consider designs licensed by ARM Holdings, which are widely preferred in cellphones for low power consumption.

Intel would face something of a problem if too many users shifted from Xeons to Atoms, since the former have much higher price tags. The company, while saying micro servers are a promising category, has tended to predict the new systems will remain a niche.

“We expect them over the coming years to be about 10% of the market,” says an Intel spokesman, reiterating past statements by company executives.

But Intel continues to offer choices for makers of such servers. The company already offers two Xeon models–drawing 20 watts and 40 watts, respectively–that it says are a good fit for micro servers in applications that demand less of a compromise on computing performance. It even sells a chip under its venerable Pentium brand for the category, which draws 15 watts.

Centerton, which has two Atom processor cores and is expected in the second half of 2012, takes the power envelope down to six watts. It also boasts capabilities that ARM chips don’t have now, such as the ability to crunch 64 bits of data at a time–a capability that helps tap into larger pools of memory.

“I think what this signals for sure is they are serious about this space and they are going to go after it,” says Patrick Moorhead, president and principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy.

But Intel’s disclosures also raise some questions. Roger Kay, another market researcher with Endpoint Technologies Associates, notes that Intel is not yet ready to disclose expected power consumption of forthcoming Xeon chips based on its latest manufacturing process. If they can get their power consumption below 10 watts, customers could have “all the performance and no power penalty,” he says.

Another question is whether SeaMicro, as a unit of AMD, might be attracted to use Centerton in its micro servers. The Intel spokesman said it will be available to all server makers; an AMD spokeswoman had no comment.

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