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Intel Atom chip draws data center interest

Proponents say that the itty-bitty Intel Atom chip has a future in great big data centers.

Though it's still early, major players have considered implementing Intel Atom processors in data center servers.

For more on Intel Atom and Xeon:
Intel unveils new Xeon x86 processor: Nehalem-EX

Quest for power efficient servers leads vendors to PC chips

Primarily known for powering small netbook computers, Intel's Atom is less costly and requires less power than bigger Intel Xeon server chips. Now, some data center observers have argued that Intel's Atom could be used to create a lower-cost data center architecture compared with options like Intel's Xeon processor.

Some data center channel partners see increased interest in Atom, and major technology vendors including Google and Microsoft are looking at running servers with low-power chips such as Atom. But others remain skeptical, saying that Intel's Xeon processor will continue to dominate in the data center.The topic of Atom servers is expected to arise at an upcoming Intel channel advisory board meeting, sources said.

The case for Atom-based servers
The idea of using lower-power processors in larger applications is not without precedent. IBM, for example, uses PowerPC chips in its huge Blue Gene supercomputers. The argument for using Atom in data center architecture is as follows: Many data centers either underuse their Xeon-based servers or use virtualization technology to break bigger and faster Xeon chips into smaller virtual servers. So why not just use a hoard of low-power, low-cost Atom chips instead?

Pete Sclafani, the CIO of 6Connect Inc., said he had a customer who needed a distributed domain name server solution and got half-depth Atom-based servers from Super Micro Computer Inc. for the job.

If power is a big priority, [using Atom chips in data centers] could make sense.
Todd Swank,
director of marketingNor-Tech

Stealth startup SeaMicro is building a server appliance stuffed with dozens of Atom chips that targets scale-out data centers. The company got about $9 million out of $47 million from the U.S. Department of Energy, funds that were earmarked for data center efficiency projects.

SeaMicro employs industry veterans from Sun Microsystems, Intel, AMD, Force10 Networks, and other Silicon Valley players. Officials are mum, but a source with direct knowledge of the project said that the company expects to unveil its product in June.

There is definitely experimentation. In October, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and Intel Labs published a paper called "FAWN: A Fast Array of Wimpy Nodes." The paper proposed a new "cluster architecture for data-intensive computing."

"FAWN couples low-power embedded CPUs to small amounts of local flash storage, and balances computation and I/O capabilities to enable efficient, massively parallel access to data," the paper's abstract reads. The project employed years-old AMD Geode LX chips, processors primarily used in embedded applications. A second iteration plans to use Atom chips. The project was funded by NetApp, Google and Intel.

In another case, researchers at Harvard University and Microsoft produced the paper "Web Search Using Small Cores: Quantifying the Price of Efficiency."

"Our findings prompt us toward re-thinking small core designs for a new breed of data center workloads in order to continue reaping the benefits of small-core power efficiency," the abstract reads.

Data center pros need to be convinced on Atom
Still, the little, low-power Atom has a lot to prove. Even some Intel officials -- albeit on the Xeon side of the house -- are skeptical.

"I'm not saying that people aren't trying different models," said Shannon Poulin, the director of Xeon platforms in Intel's data center group. "There are different science projects out there to see if it's the right model, and a lot of experimentation happening in the market. But right now, the majority of deployment that I'm aware of is Xeon based." According to Poulin, all the original equipment manufacturers he talks to are interested in Xeon in the data center right now.

The argument against using Atom in data centers is that it doesn't provide the same level of performance or features -- particularly the so-called reliability, availability and serviceability (RAS) features -- that Xeon does.

Poulin said he was "aware of zero" production data center servers tapping into Atom.

Others said that Atom might work, but only for a minority of data center environments. Todd Swank, the director of marketing for Burnside, Minn.-based systems builder Nor-Tech, said he could envision using Atom chips in data center servers, but the applications are few and far between.

"Obviously Atom is a low-power processor," Swank said. "From that perspective, if power is a big priority, it could make sense. But for the server applications we get, people [need] Xeon-level performance."

Poulin agreed that Xeon will continue to dominate. "We're happy to have anything built on Intel architecture," Poulin said. "I'll take business wherever it comes from. It's just coming from Xeon right now."

Mark Fontecchio can be reached at

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