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Low-power server startup pitches Intel Atom for Hadoop

Low-power server startup SeaMicro says its new 512-core Intel Atom box suits distributed database workloads.

SeaMicro’s new low-power server caters to a fast-growing class of data center workloads: Massively parallel distributed database systems like Hadoop and Cassandra.

The SeaMicro SM10000-64, unveiled this week, builds on 256 dual-core Intel Atom chips. These processors were originally designed for consumer devices like netbooks and smartphones, but today’s data center power demands have prompted some startups to look at low-power chips like Atom and even ARM to handle certain light, Internet-oriented workloads like Web serving.

“We weren’t originally designed for the database tier, but new technologies are emerging to parallelize database and search,” said Andrew Feldman, SeaMicro CEO. Those technologies are “reducing the dependency on expensive database software and moving it out onto low-cost scale-out infrastructure.”

Once the purview of the biggest Internet companies, the Apache Software Foundation’s Hadoop and its ilk are also finding their way to the enterprise, said Jonathan Eunice, principal IT advisor at Illuminata in Nashua, N.H.

Such databases are not typically used in classic enterprise computing, but are “meaningfully used in network-scale data analysis,” Eunice said, citing financial risk management and price optimization as sample applications.

Based on Google MapReduce, Hadoop offers parallel programmers a “joyously simple” framework around which to program otherwise complex data processing algorithms, Eunice said.

Hot for Hadoop
SeaMicro’s new SM10000-64 follows the original SM10000 introduced in June, using 256 Intel 1.66 GHz dual-core Intel Atom N570 processors, instead of 512 1.66 GHz single-core Atom Z530. At the same time, it maintains the original’s 10U footprint and 2.5 kW power envelope.

But what makes the SeaMicro box a fit for distributed database applications isn’t just the sheer number of processors or its low power consumption, but its total system bandwidth, said Pete Sclafani, CIO and co-founder of 6connect, a data center consultancy in Oakland, Calif.

In highly distributed applications like Hadoop, problems are chunked up between dozens or hundreds of nodes, lessening the need for a single high-powered CPU. At the same time, that model generates a lot of inter-node communication, requiring a big investment in network and cabling infrastructure, he said.

In a traditional cluster made up of 1U two-way servers, that traffic travels over one or maybe two 10 Gb links. In contrast, the 512 cores in the SM10000-64 share an aggregate 1.28 Tb of system bandwidth, which SeaMicro’s Feldman said is about five times as much bandwidth per core, while at the same time eliminating the need for external switches and cables.

Blades, with their shared backplanes, popularized this model, Sclafani said, and familiarized data center architects with intergrated hardware stacks like SeaMicro’s.

The 32-bit bust
Meanwhile, the new SM10000-64 doesn’t improve on its bandwidth story, but its new Atom chip could make it an easier sell.

The Atom Z530 that powered the original SeaMicro box was 32-bit; now, the processor powering the system is 64-bit, supporting more modern operating systems and up to 4 GB of RAM per processor.

Support for 64-bit makes the SM10000-64 a better fit for the average data center, said SeaMicro’s Feldman. “Ninety-five percent of the x86 world runs a 64-bit OS,” he said, and many customers had a hard time with the old 2 GB memory limitation that confined it to light “Internet-facing” workloads, he said.

Indeed, the system’s original 32-bit architecture presented somewhat of a stumbling block for prospective customers, said 6connect’s Sclafani.

“The 32-bit compatibility was a tough one,” Sclafani said. “For the past two or three years, we’ve been telling people to future-proof their environments and move away from 32-bit.” With 64-bit compatibility, the SeaMicro box “becomes more of go-to item that we can talk about; before, it was just something to keep a close eye on.”

SeaMicro customers include Skype, Mozilla, Rogers Communications, Oakridge National Laboratories, France Telecom and China Netcom Broadband, but the company declined to specify how many customers it has in total.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Alex Barrett, News Director at, or follow @aebarrett on twitter.

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