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SeaMicro brawns up the microserver

Startup crams Xeon server chips into an energy-efficient server, broadening the appeal of microservers for large data center operators.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
3 min read
Stripped down: SeaMicro's energy-efficient motherboard has processors, memory, and a custom chip for sharing computing resources.
Stripped down: SeaMicro's energy-efficient motherboard has processors, memory, and a custom chip for sharing computing resources. SeaMicro

Startup SeaMicro first packed lots of low-end Atom processors into servers to save power and space. Now Intel's beefy Xeon server chips are also getting the low-power treatment.

SeaMicro today announced its SM 10000-XE server, which it claims is the most energy-efficient Xeon server ever built. It consumes one half the power of a server with comparable computing muscle, takes one third of the space, and increases the available bandwidth twelve times, the company said.

The company is one of few companies that have taken a radical approach to server design by using arrays of less powerful processors, called "wimpy nodes." Competitor Calxera, for example, builds efficient servers using an ARM chip normally used in cell phones.

SeaMicro, which was partially funded by a Department of Energy grant, started with servers built around Intel's Atom processors, which are normally used in netbooks. The server processors share resources, such as networking and disk, which also improves energy efficiency.

These types of "micro servers" are effective at processing many simple tasks in parallel, making them well suited for "scale out" data center jobs such as serving up web pages. Mozilla, for example, is using SeaMicro's Atom-based servers to rapidly download files to users.

But some jobs require more complex processing and may not be worth the trouble of breaking down into simpler tasks. Now with a traditional Xeon server processor inside, SeaMicro's servers sport "brawny" processors that can run Java or PHP application servers or databases, such as MongoDB, favored by Web companies, company CEO Andrew Feldman said.

"Atom is newer as a server footprint so it's slower to be adopted but Xeon is right in the mainstream of what people are using today," he said during a press conference with Intel and Samsung today in San Francisco. SeaMicro partnered with Intel on processors and with Samsung on its most power-efficient DRAM devices.

The four-year old company achieved the low-power architecture by stripping the server down to its bare essentials and designing a custom "fabric" chip that handles all the communications between the CPU and other server components.

For example, rather than have a network card dedicated to each processor, the fabric chip can turn on Ethernet connections only when needed. By consolidating functions, including networking and disk access, SeaMicro was able to eliminate components that draw energy "like vampires," Feldman said.

The redesign results in a much smaller server motherboard, with some as small as a business card, and better efficiency, he said. Since it's a x86 processor, Windows applications can run unchanged on it. One of its 10 rack-unit systems could replace 60 server racks from five years ago with a 96 percent reduction in power, Feldman said.

The server system is built around 64 quad-core Sandy Bridge Xeon processors with as much as 32 gigabytes of memory, yielding up to 2 terabytes of total storage. Each core can deliver 2.5 gigabits of bandwidth and 10 gigabits per socket. The average power consumption for a 10 rack unit system is 3.5 kilowatts. List price is $138,000.

With the growth of social networking and cloud-connected mobile devices, scale-out servers for data centers arethe fastest growing segment of the server market, Feldman said.

By 2016, Intel expects that ten percent of the server market will be "microservers," said Jason Waxman, the general manager of Intel's Data Center business unit. Low-power systems are particularly important to Web-scale data center operators--not only because energy costs money, but also because it can be difficult to get enough available power in the first place.