Intel's announcement of 20 low-power Atom server chips is a major push forward for the nascent microserver market. The new chips (dubbed S1200) are intended for a variety of data center uses, ranging from general-purpose scale-out servers to controllers for storage appliances, Ethernet switches and other appliance-like applications.
The dual-core systems on a chip include ECC-memory-compatible controllers that can manage up to 8 Gbytes of DDR3 RAM, PCI controllers, hyperthreading and hardware-assisted virtualization. Running at 1.5 to 2.0 GHz, the chips draw between 6 and 9 watts and are priced starting at $50 when purchased in quantity.
There will no doubt be a rush to compare ARM's new server designs to Intel's--and there's nothing wrong with that. Compare away, but be aware that comparisons are fleeting and that the business models are very different. A technical comparison of the Intel and ARM low-power server CPUs probably won't tell you much about how the market will unfold.
Just as Intel has one heck of an uphill climb to get into the smartphone and tablet game, ARM will have at least as big of a challenge in servers. While binary compatibility may not be all that important for many applications, microservers still need to fit into existing systems. Intel, with the Windows/Linux infrastructure that everyone knows, has a leg up on management systems at the very least, because the tools should be the same.
While management tools might be the same, IT shouldn't expect to use microservers the same way they do traditional servers. That is, don't expect to throw on a hypervisor and toss all resources into a pool. Because individual microservers are slower and somewhat memory-constrained, the best use will probably be without virtualization in true, scale-out applications. In those cases, if a server croaks, you'll just forget about it. If you need to upgrade software, you'll use load balancers to direct around servers being upgraded. The thing you won't want to do is run $5,000 worth of VMware software on your $500 microserver. VMware will probably create products to address this--at least, one would hope--but the best uses will likely be to craft major applications to the server architecture itself.
But back to Intel. It wasn't all that long ago that the company resisted the push for low-power server chips, essentially saying those devices wouldn't account for more than 10% of the existing market. Given ARM's success and Intel's abysmal failure in the mobile devices, Intel is no longer as sure of its prognostications as it once was. ARM also stepped up its game with designs that support virtualization and ECC memory, and as such could make reasonable servers. AMD and lots of others are planning to manufacture systems based on the ARM designs, and are already taking potshots at Intel saying that they're late to the game and uncommitted. While Intel is a bit late, it also has all the relationships it needs with server makers to do well. Besides, ask Friendster and MySpace how important it is to be first to market. It's a good thing, but it sure isn't the only thing.
There's no doubt that low-power servers will suit a wide range of applications from big data to Web farms and a lot more. My sense is that as the architecture proves itself, the market could be a lot bigger than 10% of the traditional server (macroserver?) market.Art Wittmann is a former editor for InformationWeek. View Full Bio