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3/16/2011
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Intel Challenges ARM With Micro Server Processors

Xeon and Atom processors introduced for the low-power servers gaining traction in Internet companies' data centers.

Intel has introduced Xeon and Atom microprocessors targeted at low-power servers that are becoming the next battleground between Intel and makers of ARM processors.

Intel told reporters Tuesday at a San Francisco news conference that it is currently in production with Xeon E3 45-watt and 20-watt processors, and plans to provide in the second half of the year a 15-watt chip based on its recently released 32-nanometer Sandy Bridge microarchitecture. Intel declined to say whether the chip would be under the Xeon or some other brand. In 2012, Intel promised to release a sub-10-watt Atom server processor.

The latest processors are aimed at an emerging category of data center computer called a micro server. The high-density systems pack lots of server nodes into a single chassis, which provides a shared power supply and cooling system. The shared resources reduce overall power consumption for the servers.

Micro servers have attracted the attention of large Internet companies, as well as businesses building public or private cloud computing environments. Besides reducing power consumption, the systems make it possible to spread an application across nodes, so when a server goes down, the workload automatically shifts to the other nodes without affecting application performance.

Market-demand flexibility and lower energy use has led makers of ARM processors, which are typically found in smartphones, to start making chips with enough power to drive servers that handle such applications as low-end hosting, lightweight Web servers, and simple content delivery. Companies building such ARM server chips include Marvell and startup Calxeda, formerly known as Smooth-Stone.

Boyd Davis, VP of Intel's architecture group, told reporters that Intel will respond to that challenge with low-power processors that will also deliver some of the company's most popular server features, such as 64-bit compatibility, error correcting coding, and virtualization technology. Intel also plans to launch in the second quarter the Micro Server Evaluation Lab, which will enable developers to test their software on micro servers based on Intel Xeon and Atom processors.

Intel believes that micro servers will account for less than 10% of the overall server market within four or five years. But even though the chipmaker doesn't expect micro servers "to take over the universe," Intel believes they will become a critical market segment. "We're going to win it," Davis says.

Frank Gillett, analyst for Forrester Research, says one of Intel's arguments against moving to ARM is the hassle of porting applications to a new chip architecture. Providing comparable low power on its x86 platform makes it less likely customers will look to rivals. "Competitors are trying to get something into this space and Intel is on the job trying not to make it too easy for them," Gillett said in an interview.

Facebook has tested micro servers using Intel processors in production environments and could deploy the systems in mass in late 2011 or 2012, Gio Coglitore, director of Facebook labs, said in joining Intel executives at the news conference. "The evolution of the whole (micro server) segment and the various aspects of it makes for a real next-generation possibility."

The company does not use virtualized computer systems to power its online social network, preferring instead to scale out an application across servers so no single server can take down an application, Coglitore says. Also, Facebook upgrades server processors regularly, so being able to simply swap out computer nodes is a big plus. "We have very rapid computer cycles," Coglitore says. "Two years, three years and CPUs are long in tooth for us."

Computer makers have already started shipping micro servers using Intel's current technologies. For example, Dell has built custom servers for years for Internet companies and currently has an off-the-shelf model called the DCS 5120, which comprises eight or 12 independent servers in a 3U chassis built on the Intel Xeon 3400 series processor. Examples from other manufacturers include the Tyan FM65-B5511, which packs 18 single Xeon processor computer nodes in a 4U rack-mount enclosure, and the SeaMicro SM 10000-64, which contains 256 Atom processors on 64 compute cards in a 10U chassis.

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