Intel Launches Low Power Atom To Counter ARM

Intel offers 6-watt chip for data centers to beat back Calxeda, other ARM designers using mobile chips to build servers.

Charles Babcock, Editor at Large, Cloud

December 11, 2012

3 Min Read

Intel introduced a new low-power, 6-watt processor Tuesday as a possible replacement for the common 40- and 95-watt servers that fill data centers worldwide, and in some cases, poorly utilize large amounts of electricity.

The new lightweight, micro-module servers, as opposed to tower, rack-mount or even blade servers, run cooler and are more compact. Greater numbers can be packed in a rack and several servers can share a cooling fan, instead of each unit needing its own direct airflow.

Intel's Atom S1200 processor is a two-core system on a chip, with cores running at speeds between 1.56 GHz and 2.0 GHz. In other words, they lag the latest full-power Xeon chips; the current Sandy Bridge Xeon, for example, might run from 3.2- to 3.6-GHz clock speeds. But like Xeon, each Atom core is able to run two threads simultaneously, giving it greater instruction-processing capabilities than single-thread chips.

The Atom S1240 runs at 6.1 watts; the Atom S1220, 8.1 watts; Atom S1260, 8.5 watts.

[ Want to learn more about low-power servers? See Calxeda Gets $55 Million To Fight Intel Servers. ]

Intel is carefully positioning the Atom as a specialized processor, good for a high number of small tasks running in parallel workloads, not a general-purpose chip like other members of the x86 family. Many cloud applications make use of distributed processors, such as the big data handler Hadoop, and it's conceivable Atom will find its way into Hadoop clusters and similar work. Intel mainly wishes to avoid having Atom cannibalize sales of its high-power, high-end processors. But some server manufacturers, such as Dell and HP, have begun to produce microservers based on the competing ARM architecture. ARM designs produce low-power chips used in smartphones and mobile devices.

"The data center continues to evolve into unique segments and Intel continues to be a leader in these transitions," said Diane Bryant, VP and general manager of the data center and connected systems group at Intel, in a webcast from Intel's Santa Clara, Calif., headquarters.

"We recognized several years ago the need for a new breed of high-density, energy-efficient servers ... We are delivering the industry's only 6-watt system on a chip that has key data center features," said Bryant. Two of those data center features are multi-threading and error-correcting code, where data taken from RAM is compared to a master copy to ensure the data about to be used is intact.

Atom is also able to run existing Linux and Windows and x86 applications without modification, a big plus, while ARM does not.

Advocates of green data centers say the low-power chips should supplant those with bigger energy appetites. But Intel took pains on its website to outline many areas where microservers would not necessarily be the right choice. "The microserver approach is not suited to workloads in many segments, such as high-performance computing, financial services, virtualized infrastructure, mission-critical computing and databases," said an Atom specification sheet.

Cloud computing suppliers, on the other hand, are looking to build the most efficient data centers possible for running discrete workloads, and Atom may play a role in future cloud construction.

Intel is shipping the Atom processor starting at $54 for 1,000 or more. It will seek to build a server ecosystem around it, and in addition to HP and Dell, cited Accusys, Huawei, Quanta, Supermicro, CETC, Inspur, Microsan and Qsan as producers of server designs incorporating the chip.

About the Author(s)

Charles Babcock

Editor at Large, Cloud

Charles Babcock is an editor-at-large for InformationWeek and author of Management Strategies for the Cloud Revolution, a McGraw-Hill book. He is the former editor-in-chief of Digital News, former software editor of Computerworld and former technology editor of Interactive Week. He is a graduate of Syracuse University where he obtained a bachelor's degree in journalism. He joined the publication in 2003.

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