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Intel roadmap adds low-power, high-density chips for micro servers

X86 servers have been Intel's bread and butter but the trend toward scale-out micro server systems has made the company rethink its strategy.

The shift toward using system on a chip platforms in micro servers is expected to take hold, particularly among cloud service providers. Intel can't afford to miss the boat on that trend –a departure from the x86 server approach that the chip maker has done so well with.

Intel Corp. disclosed plans this week to expand its product line of low-power, high-density chips once reserved for small computing devices to meet the demand for scale-out micro servers. Intel had been involved with creating a specification for micro servers in 2011 and offers Atom processors for micro servers, but this is a new approach.

News of the low-power, high density system on a chip (SoC) platforms for micro servers followed Intel's earnings call last week where the company's CEO admitted that the company hadn't moved fast enough to capture the ultra-mobile PC market.

The company has little choice but to go in this direction as more companies look for ways to build arrays of low-end processors that can perform better than their Intel-based systems, said Jim Handy, an analyst with semiconductor market research firm Objective Analysis based in Los Gatos, Calif.

"Intel had already lost sales because of that in the notebook market and if that happened to them in the server market, they would be in a world of hurt," Handy said.

The market for these ultra-efficient mini-servers is small – for now. While the average data center manager probably isn't thinking about micro servers yet, the guys who are running large cloud data centers already are as they seek efficiency, said Nathan Brookwood, analyst at Insight 64, a semiconductor consulting firm.

Indeed, the issue of power consumption coupled with a new challenger in ARM in the server space has forced Intel to rethink its strategy, said Tom Starnes, a microprocessor analyst also with Objective Analysis.

"Intel was traditionally focused on performance, performance, performance, but there are apps that don't need the highest screaming performance and power consumption has become a big issue," Starnes said.

Meanwhile, ARM has improved its chip performance and it is an architecture known to be conservative in power consumption, Starnes said.

"They have pushed their way into the low end server business and it's a business that Intel wants to protect," Starnes said.

ARM's scale-out approach of using many small, low-power processors that share processing tasks across hundreds of processors seemed like the right way to go, Brookwood said.

"Intel's version was to put a smaller processor in a server near an Ethernet adapter and call that a micro server," Brookwood said. "They will be better positioned once they deliver these things."

Plus, ARM is at a disadvantage in the Intel-dominated server-space, just as Intel's Atom processor is the underdog in the mobile device space where ARM devices lead, Starnes said.

A year from now, Intel's SoC platforms are expected to be competitive against ARM chip providers such as Calxeda and Applied Micro Circuits Corp., and AMD's X-series Opteron processors.

Intel's roadmap

Intel's forthcoming 14nm products scheduled for release in 2014 include an SOC design that incorporates the next-generation Broadwell architecture. The low-power, high-density chips are aimed squarely at micro servers, storage and network devices for Web-scale applications and services.

Intel's second generation 64-bit SoCs, the Atom C2000 series, include low-energy, high-density chips for micro servers and storage (codenamed Avoton), and network devices (codenamed Rangeley).

Data center operators will be able to pack hundreds of Intel's Atom-based Avoton processors together into systems such as Hewlett-Packard's Moonshot micro servers when they become available.

"That's an awful lot of performance packed into a small system," Brookwood said. The heat created from these chips shouldn't be an issue, he said, since they are low-power -- about 15-20 watts. "Any contemporary data center can handle that."

Avoton and Rangeley chips are expected to become available later this year and will be based on 22nm process technology and the Silvermont microarchitecture. They will be available with up to eight cores with integrated Ethernet and support for up to 64GB of memory.

Intel claims that these chips deliver four times the energy efficiency and up to seven times more performance than the first generation Intel Atom processor-based server SoCs, which became available in December.

The next generation of Intel Xeon processors E3 family, codenamed Broadwell, will be available next year. The line includes the new Atom processor SoCs, codenamed Denverton, to enable even higher density deployments for data center operators.

Those chips will follow the release of the Haswell microarchitecture this year. This SoC is for companies that need high performance in high density environments and energy efficient systems.

Intel's long term plan also includes integration of fabric technology into the same piece of silicon.

"It isn't right around the corner, but having a high performance processor array interfaced into this fabric will make for some very exciting systems," Brookwood said.

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