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Intel launches Atom S1200 into the data centre

Intel on Tuesday introduced its first line of Atom-branded processors purpose-built for the data centre. The ultra-low power Atom S1200 product family is intended for use in microservers, communications equipment, and low-end storage installations.

"Adding Atom to our existing product lines for the data centre is absolutely seamless," Diane Bryant, vice president and general manager of Intel's Data Center and Connected Systems Group, said at a San Francisco press event introducing the chip giant's latest System-on-a-Chip (SoC).

She explained that Intel believes its Xeon server processors will remain the data centre workhorse for industry standard server configurations. But the new Atoms, which draw just 6 Watts of power, are better suited for certain light-compute, high-density workloads.

"In the microserver category, the workloads are low compute, low I/O, but you want a lot of [cores] packed into a small space," Bryant said. Intel partners currently building Atom S1200 microservers have managed to get more than 1,000 of the SoCs into a single server rack, she added.

Intel is no stranger to the microserver space - in fact, Bryant said her company is responsible for "launching the product category" in 2009. Companies like SeaMicro, acquired earlier this year by Advanced Micro Devices, Super Micro, and Asus have been using Atom chips in server products for several years.

But the S1200 line is Intel's first to carry a comprehensive range of data centre-specific features and capabilities. The new Atom SoCs sport two CPU cores with two threads apiece, Intel's virtualisation technology, and error code correction (ECC) memory.

They also support 64-bit, possibly giving Intel a bit of breathing room againt ARM in the microserver space. In late October, ARM launched its first 64-bit CPU core designs, Cortex A57 and Cortex A53, signing up partners like AMD and Samsung to license and build them. However, Intel's S1200 products are available today, while ARM's 64-bit offerings won't arrive until 2014.

Representatives from Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, and Facebook were also on hand at the San Francisco event to tout Intel's new family of Atom products. They said the S1200 line offers attractive possibilities for saving money on power in the data centre by moving workloads like low-intensity Internet hosting to high-density, Atom-based microserver racks.

Intel is already counting more than 20 design wins for Atom S1200 and not just in microservers. Bryant said OEMs were also using the new platform for communication infrastructure, like basic L2 switching equipment and low-end storage systems. She also said Intel was committed to integrating the S1200 and future Atom server products more fully into the data centre fabric.

A New Respect for Microservers?

Bryant, meanwhile, appeared to hedge a bit on her pronouncement earlier this year that microservers wouldn't amount to more than 10 per cent of the overall global server market. While she said Intel still believed in that figure, Bryant noted that some industry analysts were forecasting the segment expanding to as much as 15 to 20 per cent of the overall server market.

The original 10 per cent projection was part of a mini-war of words between Bryant and AMD back in March, around the time of AMD's SeaMicro acquisition. There's apparently still not a lot of love lost for Bryant and Intel on the part of AMD's SeaMicro team, which characterised the chip giant as "way behind on small cores" for servers as well as smartphones and tablets.

AMD's microserver brain trust further accused Intel of trying to "rewrite history" with its claims of creating the microserver market. Instead, according to AMD, Intel "fought SeaMicro on their choice of [Atom] processors" for servers. When Intel finally built a 64-bit, dual-core Atom chip "made for SeaMicro" a couple of years ago, it was done quietly and not promoted to other partners, AMD claimed.

"AMD and its SeaMicro technology are leading the charge in microserver technology and development," SeaMicro concluded. "We recently announced a technology partnership with ARM and plans to roll out microservers using ARM technology. It's understandable that Intel is threatened, but we would like to make sure that everyone has the facts straight."