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Intel seeks new 'microserver' standard

Intel doesn't want to be the only one touting eensy-weensy servers aimed at Web site hosting companies. It's trying to standardize its design.

SAN FRANCISCO--In September, Intel introduced its back-to-the-future idea of tiny "microservers." Now the company wants to make the design into a standard others can use, too.

The chipmaker will offer its design specification to the Server System Infrastructure Forum by the end of the year, said Jason Waxman, general manager of Intel's high-density computing group. If the group's board votes its approval for the specification, group members may use the designs royalty-free, he said in a meeting with reporters here.

"Before the end of the year, it will happen," Waxman said.

An Intel 'microserver'
An Intel 'microserver.' Click on photo for more images. Stephen Shankland/CNET

The computer industry is in constant tension between proprietary designs and standards that anyone may use. The former can mean tidy profits for companies, as long as the technology is widely adopted, but the latter can spur broader adoption. Intel's primary business, selling processors, benefits more from the latter when it comes to cultivating a new server market segment.

Who's it for?
Waxman believes the servers will appeal to Web site hosting companies that need a lot of servers for relatively low-traffic Web sites.

"At most Web sites hosting providers, do you know what the server does? Nothing. It just sits there," Waxman said, so a low power draw when idle is an important characteristic. But when that request to view the Web page does arrive, it must respond quickly.

Jason Waxman, general manager of Intel's high-density computing group
Jason Waxman, general manager of Intel's high-density computing group Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

This sales pitch recapitulates one for first-generation blade servers from early this decade. So what's different now from the first time, when those commercially unsuccessful blade servers were replaced with much more powerful, sophisticated, and expensive models? This time, though the Intel microservers are simple, they have reasonably good performance, Waxman said.

"For the low-end, scaled-out Web hosting space, we think we can put enough power in a low enough power envelope," Waxman said.

What's inside?
The diminutive server consists of a single quad-core processor and four memory banks. Intel showed 16 microservers housed in an 8.75-inch-tall chassis that supplies them all with power, cooling, and a network connection to the outside world. Along the bottom of the chassis is a bay with 16 "sleds" that each has a trio of 2.5-inch hard drives that directly connect to each microserver.

The present microserver uses a 1.86GHz quad-core processor, the "Lynnfield" model of Intel's new "Nehalem" generation. Its top power consumption is 45 watts, but early in 2010, Intel will release a dual-core "Clarkdale" model that consumes only 30 watts when running flat-out.

That's at the top end, though. Intel's goal is for the entire microserver--which also includes memory and supporting chips--to idle at just 25 watts of power.