The future of server computing is low power

By Keir Thomas, PCWorld

Once upon a time, servers had to offer nothing more than raw computing power. Everything else was a secondary consideration, including the consumption of electricity. It didn't matter if there was no need for all that computing power. The rule of thumb was always to buy a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

Alas, this has led to bloated servers chewing through energy and also requiring masses of air conditioning wherever they're housed. As such, server hardware is starting to look anachronistic as the western world transitions to using less energy.

The question of how to use less power in the data center has been occupying a lot of clever minds recently, and the smell of revolution is in the air. More accurately, and to paraphrase Winston Churchill, we're not yet seeing the end of high-energy server computing. But we're perhaps at the beginning of the end.

The SM10000-64 relies on PCI-Express cards loaded with Atom N570 chips.

The SM10000-64 relies on PCI-Express cards loaded with Atom N570 chips. It's not innovation in server CPU technology that's bringing about change. Instead, it's all about appropriating technology at the other end of the computing spectrum: cell phone and tablet CPUs.

These chips typically consume just a handful of watts of power -- a fraction of their desktop and server counterparts. They might not be anywhere near as powerful in computing terms, but they come out far better if performance is measured against every watt of energy spent.

Marvell recently announced it was using the same ARM CPU technology normally found in mobile phones and tablets to create a server chip. This in turn was made possible because of new 64-bit designs from ARM, a company that makes no hardware itself but merely licenses its designs to numerous third-party manufacturers.

As well as being able to utilize significant amounts of memory (terabytes rather than gigabytes), the 64-bit ARM chips also tick another feature box demanded by server admins right now: virtualization.

ARM chips have a major limitation on the server, however. Quite simply, they're not x86 (or x86 64-bit, which is de rigueur for most server setups nowadays). ARM chips have their own architecture, which is how they can manage to be so power efficient.

A different architecture shouldn't make much difference; Linux and Unix can be easily recompiled for ARM architecture, for example, as can many applications, like the popular Apache Web server or Samba file sharing software. However, ARM on the server is unknown territory and, while theoretically simple, various undiscovered spanners could end up in the works. Most admins would rather tread a well-worn path than strike out on their own, and ideally buy everything as part of a supported package.

Microsoft is also working on porting Windows to the ARM architecture but it seems this is more about creating a consistent experience across desktop and mobile technologies. While it's not hard to imagine how in-house ARM expertise could be applied to Microsoft's server products, that would be pure speculation.

While the software infrastructure for ARM isn't yet present, the server hardware scene is also perhaps in an even more dire state. Nobody is yet selling motherboards that can accommodate four, eight, or more ARM chips, for example (although I'll bet they're in the works). We lack the kind of sophisticated chipsets that can support the data throughput server applications require, too.

What's needed, then, is a server setup that uses low-power chips but which is also 64-bit x86-compatible, and has clever chipset technology.

Well, yesterday it might just have arrived. Silicon Valley startup SeaMicro announced an innovative server called the SM10000-64 that features no fewer than 256 Atom N570 dual-core processors, each clocked at 1.66GHz, making for 850GHz of total computing power across 512 cores.

The Atom N570 chip was created for tablet computers but is 64-bit and contains virtualization extensions. That makes it surprisingly useful on the server. In theory, for example, the 256 processors in the SM10000-64 could be further subdivided into virtual machines for various tasks

Each chip runs as a separate server and SeaMicro's trick is to integrate the chips in a way that even Intel didn't envisage, adding-in things like load balancing and management software so that many of the chips can be worked together as a single computing unit.

Because it uses Atom chips, the SM10000-64 uses only a quarter of the power of an equivalent setup using traditional x86 server chips, such as Intel's Xeon line. Additionally, because Atom chips are designed for mobile phones and are therefore physically very small, the SM10000-64 server cabinet takes up just 10U of rack space and heat generation is significantly reduced.

Of course, it's not quite apples-for-apples when comparing a chip designed for a mobile phone with one designed for the server. Xeon chips are significantly more powerful when it comes to pure number crunching, for example. But SeaMicro argues that many typical server applications just don't require that kind of power. Running a Web server, for example, requires little more than the capability to shift lots of little pieces of data from one place to another.

Able to run standard x86 software, just like virtually any other Intel/AMD-based server, the SM10000-64 also overcomes any migration concerns server admins might have.

At just under $150,000 in its base configuration, the SM10000-64 is clearly a specialized tool. SeaMicro's first attempt at an Atom-based server, the SM10000, was picked-up by Skype, France Telecom, China Netcom Broadband and various other high-end users.

The SM10000-64 contains 512 processor cores but is just 17.5 inches tall.

The SM10000-64 contains 512 processor cores but is just 17.5 inches tall. SeaMicro management is keeping quiet on whether it'll produce a smaller and less expensive version, although in a comment to BizFeed today a spokesperson said SeaMicro's technology is extremely scalable and that the company is "able to build larger systems appropriate for container size deployments as well as smaller systems," adding, "We will let the market guide us as to which we choose to do next."

The technology relies on standard PCI-Express cards loaded with four dual-core Atom chips, along with SeaMicro's own logic chips, so there's theoretically no reason why the technology can't be scaled down to make a multiple-processor Atom-based server that could fit in 1 unit of rack space.

However, the SM10000-64 is not compatible with Microsoft products outside of virtualized environments. The capability to run Windows Server would be vital, should the company have any ambitions in the small to medium-sized business market.

Additionally, although 64-bit, the Atom N570 can only address 4GB of memory, which could prove a limiting factor in computing environments outside of the high-end load balancing setups envisioned by SeaMicro, such as social networking, gaming, and search.

However, as a demonstration of how low-power server computing can be done, the SM10000-64 is a tour de force. It'll be interesting to see if and how other companies follow in their footsteps.

Keir Thomas has been making known his opinion about computing matters since the last century, and more recently has written several best-selling books. You can learn more about him at . His Twitter feed is @keirthomas .

Reprinted with permission from Story copyright 2011 PC World Communications. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

Bing’s AI chatbot came to work for me. I had to fire it.
Shop Tech Products at Amazon