Considering the high power usage by databases, it is not surprising that Intel wants to dominate the low-power servers market. It is likely that databases and cloud servers (20% of sales, 3x PC segment growth) added to Intel's growth in 2011.
Intel may think extremely low-power servers are only a small part of the server market, but that isn't stopping the company from competing in this segment.
At its Intel Developer Forum in Beijing, the company said it will release a six-watt, dual-core processor known as Centerton, based on a dual-core Atom design, in the second half of this year.
Atom is Intel's low-power core design and the company has been pushing variants of it for everything from smartphones and tablets to set-top boxes and netbooks. Centerton will be a 32nm, dual-core system-on-chip (SoC) that will draw six watts of power. This will be a 64-bit chip with support for the large amounts of memory that many server applications require.
The microserver market is particularly interesting because of a theory that massive "scale out" deployments—typically large Web farms—would do better with a larger number of physical cores if those processors used much less power than traditional servers. SeaMicro was perhaps the biggest early advocate of this process, coming out with its SM10000 server using up to 512 Atom cores and its proprietary fabric for connecting multiple processors, along with the associated memory and input/output. Last year, it upped the ante by switching to 64-bit Atom N570s.
SeaMicro was acquired by AMD earlier this year, and the company is widely expected to start using that fabric with its own processors and offer the technology to its OEMs.
Meanwhile, a number of companies—notably Calxeda, with its EnergyCore ARM processor— have been talking about using multiple ARM-based cores to compete in the microserver market. The concept is good, and Calxeda says its processor can draw as little as 1.5 watts for a dual-core server, although it is 32-bit only. This, too, is expected to go into real production in the second half of this year.
ARM has announced a 64-bit architecture that many vendors are expected to embrace, but 64-bit ARM cores aren't expected to be available for volume production until 2014.
Intel also said it will be shipping a new version of its Xeon E3 processor based on the Ivy Bridge architecture, manufactured on a 22nm process using "tri-gate" transistors. These chips are aimed at slightly larger servers, usually a single socket 1 U rack or blade server that effectively is the equivalent of a high-end desktop. Currently, Intel offers 45- and 25-watt versions of the 32nm Sandy Bridge-based E3s, along with a 15-watt Pentium 350. It hasn't yet listed power requirements for the next generation E3s, but suggests the 22nm process will be more power efficient.
These should be competing more with AMD's recently announced Opteron 3200, which is meant to be a lower-power, low-price variant on the company's Opteron 4200 chip, based on the Bulldozer architecture. The four-core versions of these chips are rated at 45 watts.
Whether from Intel, AMD, or one of a variety of ARM providers, we're seeing more competition in the server market, particularly in the low-power segment. That's leading to lots of innovation and the potential for companies to save a lot on power bills.