ARM versus Atom in the datacenter; a glimpse of the future...

ARM versus Atom in the datacenter; a glimpse of the future...

Summary: With low power consumption and high-processor densities, the future of the high-efficiency datacenter may lie with ARM and Atom, not with Xeon and Opteron.


With the datacenter universe primarily being focused on bigger, faster and more efficient as the defining adjectives of discussion, it does seem a little odd to be writing about the low-power end of the CPU spectrum.  But the reality is that energy efficiency is rapidly moving up to the top of the buying concern list, and new server technologies that take advantage of energy efficient processors to deliver significant server capability are beginning to appear.

This makes the potential I talked about in a post last week, for ARM-based systems in the datacenter, make even more sense. At this point in time, there are at least two startups, SeaMicro and Smooth-Stone, working on the technology of stuffing lots of low powered processors, like the ARM, into a single box to deliver significant computing power to the datacenter. 

And I mean a lot of processors; SeaMicro got almost 10 million from the DoE from monies earmarked for encouraging energy efficiency in the datacenter with a single server that contains 512 ARM processors, a petabyte of storage and a low buy in point (under $100K). This type of server isn't designed to serve the high performance transaction processing needs of the datacenter, but to address the far more common tasks of serving up data in the form of web pages in high volume environments.

Now that Intel has begun introducing Atom processors targeted at the same low-power markets as the ARM (even though, according to analysis at ars technica, the energy efficiency isn't quite there yet). It means that there will be more processor choices for this type of server, and one of them will be able to run x86 software right out of the box. And there are already enterprise class operating systems that will need little modification to take advantage of these servers with huge numbers of low power processors.

Every datacenter operator knows that a significant number of their servers are running at well under their capacity at any given time; most rarely strain the high-end processors they are currently equipped with. Yet these server processors still draw significant power, even when running at less than maximum performance.

This is the opening that the vendors of the ARM, and potentially, Atom powered servers are targeting.  Servers that can deliver equivalent performance for these mid-performance applications while also delivering significant energy savings (numbers like 75% are being bandied about).

For those that point to the open availability of ARM processors and the single vendor availability of Atom processors, keep in mind that Intel isn't a company to let a potential processer market go untapped (which motivates their move into cell phone appropriate processors), and they certainly have the funding and ability to deliver energy efficient mid-range processors to the datacenter, if there is financial incentive to do so.

And the competition to deliver significant power savings, while providing necersary computing power, looks to be a significant driver in datacenter hardware design and purchase considerations for the foreseeable future.

Topics: Hardware, Data Centers, Processors, Servers, Storage

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  • And, Google just bought Agnilux

    • RE: ARM versus Atom in the datacenter; a glimpse of the future...

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  • You are right: DCs eat up to HUNDREDS of THOUSAND $ per year of electricity

    customers can buy few smaller ARM-based datacenters "for free" each year only on electricity savings.<br><br><b>I mean electricity $$ savings are really, really huge.</b><br><br>It is economically better to buy more slower ARM datacenters than one super-buper full-size Intel.
    • Not sure what you are babbling about. Arm data centers will be DENSER,

      so you will likely need fewer data centers, or, each data center can do more.
      • RE: Your babbling bursts before it bubbles: ARM DCs will not be denser

        -- because each of ARM CPU has like an order less computation power than full-blown Intel/AMD CPU. No matter how one would try to pack it, it's computational density will be way less that of full-blown Intel/AMD systems. Additionally, less powerfull cores/CPUs like ARM convert to way, way less computationally scalable multi-CPU systems, so initial price -- if you want to buy the same actual transaction per second (TPS) system on ARMs as on full-blown Intel/AMD -- will be way higher.<br><br>The only (but defining, as I showed above) advantage will be that it will consume less electricity by doing the same amount of work. Savings on electricity are so huge that initial higher investments will be compensated like in year and every other next year there will be "pure profit" of owning ARM-based DCs comparing to the case if full-blown CPU system was bought initially.
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  • My money on Intel

    I think my money will be on Intel. They seem much better inline to accel at this in the long run. ARM may be in control now but not down the road. Although I do think Apple and other phone makers will be the main factor in this war.
  • RE: ARM versus Atom in the datacenter; a glimpse of the future...

    I'd love to see a comparison of a mainframe with virtualized servers and the proposed ARM/Atom solutions.
    Savings in power to the server are fine, but you should add in air conditioning savings to get a fuller picture. Also, some of the new solutions that put the servers into mineral oil baths can make another huge savings in energy for the data center. I suspect that the best data centers in the very near future will be a mix of platforms that conserve space as well as energy.
  • RE: ARM versus Atom in the datacenter; a glimpse of the future...

    I'm really amazed by what you get with Intel's D510 Atom motherboard for $80. Add RAM and miniPCIe 16GB local SSD. I wish someone would create a version of that using POE, in a cheap blade format. You could sell a VM based on that with 1cpu, 1GB ram, 4GB disk, with no over-subscription, and pay for the hardware in two months.
  • I concur

    In a computer architecture class presentation a week ago, our team did a comparison between ARM and Atom. We concluded with a prediction Mr. Chernicoff alludes to here.
  • RE: ARM versus Atom in the datacenter; a glimpse of the future...

    I'm waiting for the 32 watt 8 core Atom desktops first.
  • RE: ARM versus Atom in the datacenter; a glimpse of the future...

    This is why we use virtulaization kids. To get the most out of a high end processor. 10 VMs on a single real CPU will still use less power than running 10 low power CPUs.
    Christian C Spence
  • Density isn't necessarily where it's at...

    First of all... We have been using low power consuming machinery in the server room here for a long time. The truth is that for most servers you simply do not need the super math processing of today's high end processors. All bets are off if you virtualize, but these save big in their own way. Further, we are usually talking about file storage and retrieval in a datacenter environ, not cluster or distributed computing. If you are performing these tasks, you would be better served with any intel 64 bit processor architecture.

    Back to the ARM and Atom bit. You missed one, though it is a little depreciated these days. One of our most efficient machines in a fileserver built out of a Via C3. With a direct conversion DC power supply, the consumption is less than our current crop using Atoms. For a Linux fileserver with no graphics (no X), the 800 MHz C3 is just fine for a small to medium office where disk access is the parameter to watch. Its anaemic arithmetic abilities go unnoticed. We have not tried the C7, but more recent Atom based fileservers running dual cores and twice the clock speed are only slightly faster than our venerable C3.

    What most miss in the density as well as power discussion is the amount of heat a conventional server produces, heat energy which must be radiated, convected, transferred, and reduced with energy. Yes I'm talking about cooling. The less you consume, the less you waste, the less you radiate, and the tighter you can stack. the concern becomes less about the dissipation of the CPU/chipset, and more about the drives and conversion efficiency of the power supply.

    Bottom line: Use the right tool for the job. Don't try to solve the mysteries of the universe with a C3, use big iron, GPU processing, or clusters. Don't use a Sun Sparc to serve files, use an Atom 230 with SATA drives. Finally, if you are running a server headless or in a room which ops folks work less than an hour per day, why waste CPU cycles with a GUI? Need a multihead unit for a desktop? An ARM isn't gonna cut it, an ION equipped Atom 330 might, but you'd be better of with any good desktop offering from Intel or AMD.
  • The revolution (and saving) in datacenter will also come from...

    ... not only from low power CPUs but also from software!<br><br>Today, whatever the OS loaded on server farms (mainly Unix like OS such as Linux or Solaris and sometimes Windows), the current and classical web servers and web application servers massively used are old poorly designed and badly performing stuff such as Apache, Nginx, Rock and IIS (on Windows).<br><br>Why is that? <br><br>The sole purpose to maintain these mastodons is to support crazy and inefficient development tools such as Java JRE, C# Dot Net, PHP, Python, Flash and so on that are nothing but extra layers killing the performances -without speaking about the classical bottlenecks of certain OS themselves (hey Windows).<br><br>What about the Trustleap's brand new approach of G-WAN (<a href="" target="_blank" rel="nofollow"></a>) a tiny web application server (~100 Kb) that runs pure ANSI C servlets and performs up to one million times faster than any competitor -the the worst of all being of course IIS 7.0 (check the charts of this web site).<br><br>The benchmark of the computation of a loan over 1, 10, 20, 50 and 90 years (a very classical dynamic content driven application) written in C ANSI, then in PHP, JSP and C# with concurrencies up to 1.000 requests per seconds on a single Dell quad core at 3 MHz using the AB program over a gigabit Lan is really amazing!<br><br>And the funniest part of this benchmark that is made with a real life program sample is the CPU load of G-WAN vs. any other competitor.<br><br>Of course, you'll have to rewrite your applications.<br><br>But what if using a small ARM Cortex A9 single core at only 830 MHz using a Lite release of Linux (Android could fit the task) and G-WAN outperforming an i7-980X by a ratio of up to 1.000 when the last one is using an old dog such as Apache?<br><br>I let you imagine the saving made with a server farm of 1.000 ARM Cortex 9A not only with regard to their purchase price but with the electricity bill cut.<br><br>My bet is that heavy users who need huge web static and dynamic content to deliver to their thousands of customers will soon be more than pleased to reinvest in the classical and old fashionable way of programming.<br><br>Welcome back to the future!<br><br>Just my 2 cents.<br>
  • The revolution (and saving) in datacenter will also come from...

    BTW, not being a Trustleap insider, I'm truly amazed how such old fashionable programming skills can produce sweet and efficient solution that outperform any code of purportedly enhanced modern tools.
  • RE: ARM versus Atom in the datacenter; a glimpse of the future...

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