Server Architectures: Low Power is the New Black

Arthur Cole

The driving force behind most server development these days is reducing the power draw.

The IT industry learned a hard lesson during the last oil shock: Increasing hardware density in the data center with little or no regard for rising energy consumption can come back to bite you-hard.

These days, some of the most innovative designs use a plethora of low-power technologies all the way down to the silicon.

SeaMicro, for one, is the latest to come out with a low-power device that aims to match or exceed the performance available from many of the high-power machines in use today. The SM10000-64 uses Intel's new dual-core Atom N570 chip, scaling up to 256 cores in a 10 U enclosure, offering performance equal to a Xeon configuration of more than 1,400 cores while consuming barely a quarter of the electricity. At the moment, however, that kind of efficiency will come at a substantial price tag-the SM10000 starts at $150,000.

That the Atom processors seem perfectly capable of peeling market share away from the Xeon is not lost on Intel, particularly now that the 64-bit version supports extra RAM for such in-demand applications like Web service and transactional databases. However, the alternative would be to cede the low-power market to rivals AMD and ARM, which would essentially place the company's bread-and-butter x86 business at the mercy of others.

At the moment, at least, it seems like the enterprise-ready ARM revolution is lukewarm at best. The company has stated that it is eager to expand its architecture beyond notebooks and mobile devices with the Cortex A15 release. However, that device can handle only 40-bit environments-good for some enterprise applications but not all. CEO Warren East has even gone so far as to say the company is not even ready to release a 64-bit version, but may be at some future point.

At AMD, the story is a bit different. The company recently unveiled a new set of devices in its Opteron 6100 series, which, like all Opterons, has the ability to handle both 32- and 64-bit execution without any lag. The new chips come in 8- and 12-core designs while keeping the power envelope under 65 watts. At the same time, the company is said to be close to releasing the 16-core Interlagos chip based on the new Bulldozer architecture that features a flexible floating point design capable of simultaneous execution of two 128-bit commands.

For the enterprise, the good news is that low-power does not necessarily equal less performance. After spending decades pursuing ever-increasing processing power at the expense of all else, including power consumption, it turns out that is a lot of fat to cut from today's architectures. Ultimately, the power/performance ratio will flatten out, meaning the basic hardware units will hit maximum efficiency and future energy savings will have to come through architectural and design innovations.

But that day does not seem to be upon us yet. There's still a lot to be gained from going back to the drawing board.

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