Low-Power Processing: Only the Beginning

Arthur Cole

Arthur Cole spoke with Andrew Feldman, CEO of SeaMicro, Inc., about low-power processing and his company's decision to go with the Atom processor, and whether additional gains in power efficiency are in the works.


Low-power is the driving force behind most hardware development these days. A new company called SeaMicro may have kicked the trend into high gear with the release of the SM10000-64 machine, which packs up to 256 Intel Atom cores in a 10 U enclosure and delivers performance equal to a traditional Xeon machine more than five times its size.


"The trend toward lower power servers will undoubtedly continue. It's driven by the exponential growth of the Internet and the concomitant growth in servers needed to support Internet applications."

Andrew Feldman
SeaMicro, Inc.

Cole: Low power is all the rage in server technology these days. Is this a trend that seems likely to continue, or have we gotten the power envelope as low as possible?

Feldman: The trend toward lower power servers will undoubtedly continue. It's driven by the exponential growth of the Internet and the concomitant growth in servers needed to support Internet applications. As an industry, we have just begun to focus on power in the data center, so opportunities for improvement exist at the component, memory, CPU, system and data center levels. For example, at SeaMicro, our first system, the SM10000 reduced power by 75 percent when compared to the best-in-class traditional server. Our second system, the SM10000-64 expanded the reach of the technology to the entire x86 market by adding 64-bit capabilities. We are currently working on technology that will continue this trend. So, I think it is fair to say that we are very confident that there remains tremendous opportunity for improvements in server efficiency.

Cole: There's a lot of talk about the ARM processor. What do you think its chances are for gaining significant enterprise market share?

Feldman: We have tested every imaginable type of processor, and we've found that Intel's Atom N570 is, bar none, the most power-efficient processor for Internet workloads. The N570 has advantages in that it is x86, 64-bit and is supported by a software base 30 years in the making. It is also available today, which is why SeaMicro used it to build the SM10000-64.

The ARM talk, today, is just that: talk. There isn't yet a credible ARM server part on the market. While we expect one to be delivered at the end of 2011 or early 2012, the odds that it will take enterprise share are small.


I don't think traditional enterprise customers are the early adopters. Large data center owners, Internet brands, cloud and managed hosters, are in my view where the early battles will be fought. For these companies, servers are the manufacturing floor for profit, and the cost of power and space used by servers often accounts for more than 75 percent of operating expense. Therefore, by reducing power and space, an alternative CPU vendor can provide dramatic improvements in profit.


Cole: Either way, do you see the enterprise industry pulling away from traditional Xeon and Opteron environments, considering low-power machines like your SM10000-64 are delivering equal or better performance?

Feldman: When we founded the company in July of 2007, I would have said no. I would have said that the Internet data center would come to be dominated by innovative server architectures like the SM10000-64 because of the power and space advantages that can be achieved. But the market has changed dramatically in the last three and a half years. We are seeing large enterprise customers making concerted efforts to match their compute workload to the most power-efficient server architecture. Going green is not just a feel-good slogan-it produces significant cost savings as well. We now see large single-threaded workloads such as CAD/CAM and other engineering work as a good fit for Xeon and Opteron processors. But in the enterprise, Internet workloads, Hadoop, mail, webserving and private clouds are done on systems like the SM10000-64.

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