Intel pushes Atom processor every which way but one

Will Atoms cannibalize server processors, too?

Intel Corp. desperately wants the hit Atom netbook processor inside smartphones, cars -- and even factory robots.

After initial reluctance, it's also pushing Atoms for use in lower-end desktop and notebook PCs.

There's only one market for which the Atom is entirely verboten: servers. Intel wants to protect this plum market, where it sells its latest and fastest processors and reaps its highest profits. Its Xeon family of server CPUs range in price from $200 to $3,000 for those destined for four-way to eight-way servers, according to Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at Insight64. Intel sells its Atom CPU for as little as $29.

Marketed like sports cars, blazing-fast server CPUs are also power hogs, unable to tamp down their consumption even at idle.

"If you want Ferrari-like performance, you're going to get Ferrari-like mileage," said Ian Lao, an analyst at In-Stat Inc.

But as energy prices rise, an increasing number of users and vendors are experimenting with the Mini Cooper approach -- the idea that smaller can get you there just fine and for less money.

"People may laugh at the idea of an Intel Atom server, but it all depends on what you want to do," said consultant and Green Data Center Blog author Dave Ohara. .

Meanwhile, Manchester, England-based Tranquil PC Ltd. is selling Windows Home Servers running the Atom CPU. And a Chicago-based server hosting service provider, SingleHop Inc., is leasing dual-core Atom servers to small business customers.

"There is definitely potential in the low-end server space," Lao said. "If the application is what I call a simple 'data-pusher' with little computation involved, an Atom server could be suited for that."

But Microsoft Research is even testing Atom for large-scale data centers.

"Lots of companies are experimenting with various usages -- including Microsoft," an Intel spokesman acknowledged via e-mail on Monday. "While some may experiment with servers, the current Atom is not the right fit for these opportunities. However, as we enter the many-core era and more devices and machines add Internet access, our Xeon, Core and Atom opportunities will be almost endless."

But proponents say that Atom's merits -- low power consumption, fast sleep/wake features, low price -- already make it worthy today.

For instance, Microsoft Research believes that the average server is sitting around doing nothing 75% of the time. Therefore, it is developing software that can put Atom servers to sleep -- a state in which they would use nearly zero power -- and instantly wake them on demand.

Atom CPUs, because they were originally designed for mobile PCs like netbooks, have advanced sleep and power-saving features that conventional server CPUs lack.

The resulting energy savings are potentially so high that Atom servers might make sense, if judged by this formula: total cost, including energy costs over time, divided by the processing work actually delivered, instead of the conventional formula, which is dividing the CPU price by its maximum potential performance, i.e. its clock speed (GHz rating) or number of teraflops (trillions of mathematical calculations per second) it can perform.

To reduce the preponderance of underused, power-draining servers, recent solutions have focused on two areas: Using virtualization to shift workloads to underused servers, or rewriting applications to better take advantage of multithreading, multicore CPUs.

The problem, Ohara said, is that many server applications are not multicore-enabled or easily virtualized. Also, virtualization doesn't always make sense. A data center may be too small to justify the upfront investment, he said. Or a data center may have hosting customers that, for security and liability reasons, prefer to keep their data on their own servers, rather than tying it with others in a virtualized fabric, Ohara said.

Ohara said Atom servers make sense for non-compute-intensive applications such as home servers, servers for small businesses and branch offices, and perhaps servers for low-traffic Web sites.

But other areas? Not so much, said other analysts, citing these reasons:

  • Not enough bang for the buck: Whether intentionally crippled by Intel, as Ohara contended, or not, Atom CPUs just "aren't high performers," said Jack Gold, an analyst at J.Gold Associates LLC. "The whole intent with servers is to move a whole lot of data around... [but] Atoms just aren't optimized for this fast I/O." While IT managers care about power costs, their job ultimately hinges on snappy server response times, which Atoms might not be able to offer. "If server performance is bad, they're going to hear about it from users," Gold said.
  • Server sprawl: Duplicating the might of a single, multiway, multicore Xeon server might require dozens or even hundreds of Atom servers. And that can quickly "get ugly," Gold said, because of the immense amount of IT labor needed to manage them. Also, the extra footprint required by the Atom boxes might outweigh their energy savings when real estate prices start going back up again. "Color me skeptical," Brookwood said. "Rather than armies of Atom-type arrays, I think the industry is going to keep moving toward a smaller number of larger Xeon boxes, all running virtualization."
  • Overstated energy savings: In order to keep costs down and performance acceptable, each Atom server would likely need to have its own hard drive, rather than be attached to a central pool of storage servers, Brookwood said. Direct-attached storage like local hard drives tend to use a lot more energy per terabyte than large storage pools, Brookwood said. Attempting to boost performance and cut energy usage by installing solid-state drives would jack up the server price, he said.
  • Intel server chips that incorporate Atom features, but not its cut-rate price: Analysts such as Lao expect Intel to add power-sipping features similar to Atom's to new Xeon processors based on the Nehalem architecture. Such features could include, say, the ability to let applications or users completely turn off processor cores when idle.

    Ohara is skeptical about how much effect that will have, but Lao said it will enable Intel to "maintain that [market] segmentation" between Atoms and Xeons and prevent most customers from going for Intel's cheaper offering. As a last resort, Intel could try to prevent manufacturers from building Atom servers, Gold said. Though antitrust wrangling and lawsuits could ensue, he argued that "at the end of the day, Intel has the right to sell what they want to people."

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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