As the server industry pushes for ever-smaller power draw, it's not just British chip giant ARM's designs that are generating interest: low-power server pioneer SeaMicro has announced what it claims is the world's most energy-efficient server, built from 384 Intel Atom chips.
The Atom was introduced by Intel for the then-new netbook market: a cut-down chip designed to draw as little power as possible while still offering reasonable performance. Since its single-core début, the Atom has been relaunched in dual-core and desktop-oriented versions and while it lags behind ARM's designs for power efficiency it offers the advantage of using the familiar x86 architecture.
SeaMicro, a low-power server specialist based in Silicon Valley, has been taking advantage of this compatibility with traditional server systems by taking the consumer-oriented chip to the data centre. The company's previous product, the SM10000-64, packed 256 Intel Atom 1.66GHz dual-core processors into a 10-unit rack, offering what the company claimed was the highest x86 compute density around.
Not content with that achievement, SeaMicro has upgraded its offering to use Intel's latest Atom chips. The SM10000-64HD features a whopping 384 Intel Atom N570 dual-core 1.66GHz processors per ten-unit system for a total of 768 64-bit x86 processing cores. The system also includes 1.536TB of DDR3 memory, up to 64 SATA-connected storage devices, and between eight and 64 gigabit Ethernet uplinks.
A single 10U SM10000-64HD, the company claims, can replace 60 traditional servers, four top-of-rack switches, four terminal servers, and a load balancer while drawing a quarter of the power and taking up a sixth of the space.
It's an approach which is winning interest from a variety of quarters. Described by Intel's Jason Waxman, general manager of the Data Centre Group, as "an amazing accomplishment," a full-size rack populated with SM10000-64HD units would offer 3,072 64-bit 1.66GHz processing cores.
That's certainly an impressive compute density, but not one that will suit every scenario. Unlike Intel's server-specific Xeon processor line, the Atom hits its impressive performance-per-watt figures by ditching some functionality. The key component to take the hit is cache: while an entry-level Xeon might have 8MB cache, the Atom N570 at the heart of SeaMicro's design has a mere 1MB.
For a lot of use scenarios, however, that's not a deal-killer. With data centres moving towards low-complexity highly-parallel tasks, a many-core system built from Atom chips could offer the same - or greater - performance than a multi-core Xeon server in a fraction of the power draw.
The SeaMicro SM10000-64HD is available now, with prices starting at a somewhat eye-watering $237,000 (around £147,000) for the base model.