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

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.
Written by David Chernicoff, Contributor

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.

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