Microservers: New Platform for a New Data Environment

Arthur Cole

All signs are pointing to healthy growth for microservers — the low-powered, small-footprint devices that provide high performance at much lower price points than conventional servers. But before we start talking about the “Age of Microservers,” it is important to understand that they are more adept at some workloads than others, so at best they are likely to perform key data functions rather than as replacements for higher-end machines.

First, the numbers: IHS iSuppli has released its latest report on microservers, predicting a tripling of shipments in the coming year. And while that certainly is impressive, the fact remains that the market is extremely small — less than 300,000 machines compared to more than 8 million conventional servers. And even if yearly growth patterns hold, microservers are only expected to muster a tenth of overall server sales by 2016.

However, raw sales aren’t as important to microservers as the niche roles they are to play in emerging data environments. Traditional data centers pride themselves on their processing prowess — who can handle the biggest loads, who has the fastest throughput, etc. Microservers are intended for the web-facing, mobile-oriented data environments that are driving social media, ecommerce and other functions, which usually consist of extremely high volumes of small-packet data loads. As cloud providers and other startups seek to build the physical infrastructure needed to support their services, microservers offer a welcome respite from traditional machines due to their low power and cooling requirements, small form factors and high-density capabilities.

All of this has drawn the interest of the top server manufacturers, natch, but it’s on the processor level that much of the market positioning is taking place. Intel, to its credit, quickly identified the threat that ARM processors posed to this new class of servers and has been deftly positioning both its Xeon line and Atom mobile processors as viable alternatives. As Datacenter Dynamics notes, the company’s focus on speed and programmability to allow faster processing of average loads while also enabling rapid pooling for spikes has led to key design wins from HP, Dell and others.

Still, ARM processors are finding their way onto a number of intriguing platforms, such as AppliedMicro’s X-Gene, a 64-bit Server on Chip solution that the company is pitching to the Open Compute Project Foundation for its upcoming ARMv8 board architecture. The system features multiple ARM cores linked to AppliedMicro’s proprietary offload technology in anticipation of new purpose-built cloud infrastructure that require increased density as well as field serviceability.

That the data center, or the enterprise itself for that matter, is no longer a monolith built around standard infrastructure and committed to all-things digital should surprise no one anymore. In these days of targeted infrastructure and services aimed at highly specialized data environments, the microserver will play an important role in a greater server ecosystem. And increasingly, it will be tied to specialized storage, networking, operating system and application layer platforms as well.



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