Intel Takes On ARM With Atom C2000

Next-generation Intel Atom C2000 processor is aimed at cloud functions, including micro-servers, switches and cold storage.

Charles Babcock, Editor at Large, Cloud

September 4, 2013

4 Min Read

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Intel has taken its Atom chip architecture designed for mobile devices and re-launched it as a micro-server design for low-power cloud applications. Forty-two micro-servers can fit into a 2U space on a rack that might typically hold two thin "pizza box" servers or six blade servers.

In addition to micro-servers, the Atom C2000 will come in 13 variations that are targeted at use in specific compute, network switch and cold storage systems. Intel, having come late to the low-power market behind the ARM architecture, is trying to make up for lost time. At an event Wednesday in San Francisco, Intel and partners ushered Atom into the spotlight as if to say Intel was no longer just a PC and server chip company.

Diane Bryant, senior VP and general manager of Intel's Data Center and Connected Systems Group, unveiled the new chip and said, "As the world becomes more mobile, the pressure to support billions of devices and users is changing the very composition of datacenters." Many cloud applications, including big data-caching applications using Memcached, require lots of memory but a limited number of compute cycles, making them a target user of the low-power Atom architecture.

Cold storage has come into vogue as a low-power application used in storing and retrieving infrequently used content. The disk that's storing the content might not be powered up until a request for it appears. For example, Facebook estimates that only 8% of the 300 million pictures that it has stored will be accessed in any one day. It is building a cold-storage facility for pictures and other content alongside two massive compute data centers in Prineville, Ore.

[ What makes the best chip for cloud servers? See Intel, AMD Debate Best Chip For Cloud. ]

The C2000 chips will use between six and 20 watts and have been fabricated with 22-nanometer circuits. They will come in eight core versions, compared to their Centerton predecessor's two-core CPUs. As a result, C2000 chips will have seven times the processing power of Centerton. Intel's latest server and PC architecture, Sandy Bridge Xeons, emerged in 2011 on 32-nanometer circuits. Next-generation Atoms due in 2014 will be based on 14-nanometer circuits, said Bryant. Mat Karlsson, Ericsson cloud program manager, said Ericsson will launch cloud services next year based on data centers and networks powered by Atom-based servers and switches. Chris Phillips, program manager of Windows Server and System Center, said Microsoft was working with Intel on an Atom rack architecture that will populate Azure cloud data centers. Unlike ARM chip designs, the Atom's architecture uses a version of the x86 instruction set that allows it to run existing Windows software.

Intel is producing systems on a chip that are targeted at specific compute, switching or storage functions. One such system was the FM5224 low-power switch. Each C2000 can support up to 64 GBs of memory (eight times the Centerton capacity), and provide 72 Ethernet ports. That allows a 30% higher density for connected micro-server nodes in a rack, said Bryant. Systems on chip typically include a set of components, such as high-density memory, communications or graphics processors.

An entry-level system on chip for networking might include Intel's QuickAssist hardware accelerator for producing encrypted message flows. They could be used in routers or security appliances, Bryant said.

Intel is moving into supplying advanced components for rack designs as well as systems on a chip. Fiber optic producer Corning has produced with Intel the MSC connector for Intel's Rack Scale Architecture. The connector moves data as photons instead of electrons between components on a rack or between racks across a data center. The 64 glass strands of Corning's ClearCurve fiber optic cable can transfer 1.6 Tbps at a distance up to 300 meters, or three times as far as previously possible, said Bryant. The new fiber optic components can also be bent around much tighter curves without loss of data, compared to previous components. That makes it easier to connect compute and switching nodes within a rack.

Dell, HP, NEC, Quanta and other manufacturers are slated to bring out micro-servers based on Atom in the coming months. Twenty-seven new switch designs are expected to be based on the FM5224 switch.

The Atom C2000 is designed to compete with low-power ARM chip designs from Calxeda, APM and AMD.

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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