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Kevin Fogarty
Kevin Fogarty
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Microservers: The Legos of the Data Center

Microservers adopt the Lego model to transform the data center: You can build some amazing things when you pack a lot of small components into one place.

Anyone who's played with Legos knows you can build towering structures out of tiny components. That model is now being applied to computing machines in the form of high-density microservers.

With a small footprint, low power demand and just enough computing power, microservers are an ideal functional match for the general push toward scale-out computing. Interest is growing in microservers in part because they use between half and two-thirds the power of an average x86 processor, which has significant implications for data centers where space and power are at a premium.

Sales of microservers tripled in 2012 compared to 2011. That's impressive growth, though it only amounts to about 291,000 microservers, a mere sliver compared to the 8.4 million traditional server types sold in 2012.

Given time, however, that growth will add up. By 2016, microservers will make up 10% of the sales of all servers, according to a market study by IHS iSuppli Research published in February.

Chip makers are certainly getting behind the microserver movement. Intel launched a whole division to make and sell them, while rival AMD bought SeaMicro for its ability to put together large numbers of small computers.

ARM, best known for making processors for mobile devices, is also getting into the game. It has licensed designs that are enabling manufacturers such as AppliedMicro to build server-on-chip systems. AppliedMicro's product is called X-Gene.

"AppliedMicro's design includes onboard networking, complete with a programmable Ethernet switch controller with an ARM Cortex A5 core at its heart (the same core used in the latest smartphones)," wrote Art Wittmann in a recent blog. "By including very fast switch controllers and interconnects on the chip, AppliedMicro has created an ideal chip for high-density servers."

Server vendors are also getting in the game, including HP, which launched its Moonshot line earlier this month. As Kurt Marko reported, "The real value of Moonshot isn't horsepower, but density, efficiency and cost. HP claims the product uses one-ninth the power and takes an eighth the space at about a quarter the cost of conventional x86 servers."

Microservers make it possible--logistically and financially--to add thousands of physical servers to keep up with the growing number of low-demand workloads that must carry sub-second response times and fair reliability. Stocking the data center with hordes of runts rather than a few towering examples of power and precision in computing can be efficient and cost-effective.

They also provide a more granular scalability curve and make rip-and-replace hardware maintenance policies even more cost effective. It costs a lot less to throw away a microserver than a 1U pizza box, for example.

Of course, the Lego comparison is apt in more ways than one: If IT isn't careful, these little machines could pile up like Legos in a 6-year-old's room. Any parent who's had to negotiate a Lego-strewn floor in the dark with bare feet knows the hazards that await organizations that fail to properly manage, store and dispose of these devices.

Kevin Fogarty is a freelance writer covering networking, security, virtualization, cloud computing, big data and IT innovation. His byline has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, CNN.com, CIO, Computerworld, Network World and other leading IT publications. View Full Bio
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