Intel Avoton: The chip giant takes a second run at microservers

Intel spells out its plans for the microserver market and how its new Avoton chip will help it see off the threat from ARM in the emerging ultra low-power server space.
Written by Nick Heath, Contributor

As use of cloud services and the web picks up so does demand for computer hardware suited to serving simple content to huge numbers of people across the globe a global scale.

To help meet this need, large web companies are beginning to use microservers, small servers with modest performance and low-power consumption that can be packed into dense clusters, with hundreds of microservers able to fit into a single rack.

The emerging demand for low-power, dense server clusters presents an opportunity for new chips to gain a foothold in the datacentre, traditionally a stronghold for Intel's x86-based processors.

UK chip designer ARM sees microservers as a new market for its low-power Risc processors, which are the basis of the systems inside more than 90 percent of smartphones today.

But Intel also has designs on the low-power server market, and on Wednesday will unveil its Atom C2000 system-on-a-chip (SoC) designed for microservers and other low power computing infrastructure.

For microservers Intel will release the 64-bit Avoton, an up to eight core SoC that is the follow-up to the microserver-targeted Centerton SoC it released last year.

"There's an opportunity in the datacentre space around those very large hyperscale datacentres," said Shannon Poulin, Intel VP of the Datacenter and Connected Systems Group.

However, Intel doesn't expect its Atom C2000 SoCs to account for a significant proportion of its datacentre earnings. Intel forecasts microservers will account for no more than 10 percent of datacentre-related unit shipments and revenue in the long run, and that it will not hit this double digit target "any time soon" as the market for microserver remains very small.

"We are in the period of exploration for these products and for microservers in general," Poulin said.

While the market for microservers is expected to grow traditional rack, blade and tower servers will continue to make up the bulk of the server market for the forseeable future, with microservers expected to account for no more than one-fifth of server sales by 2015/16, as enterprise software like Oracle databases or SAP ERP systems are not designed to run on microservers' lower power, parallel processing infrastructure.

The C2000 series of Atom SoCs is also targeted at more than microservers, with Intel also aiming for the chip to go inside routers, switches, network security appliances and cold storage.

"We don't play strongly in a lot of those spaces," Poulin said. "It's filled up by Freescale, ARM and MIPS — these are the appliances and equipment that would be out at the edge of a network. There's very interesting opportunities for us in those spaces."

As for demand, Poulin said Intel expects to "see over 50 design wins" for its C2000 SoCs, mainly on the network and storage side, but with a few "big names" in the "microserver space".

Alongside Avoton Intel is also launching Rangeley, which is based on the same C2000 Atom SoC, but designed for networking equipment.

How Avoton stacks up

An Avoton SoC is up to seven times faster than SoCs based on its predecessor, Centerton, and also delivers up to four times better performance per watt of energy it consumes, according to early benchmarks from Intel. More detailed benchmarks are expected to show greater improvements between generations when they are revealed on Wednesday.

The Avoton's thriftier power consumption stems from a number of factors including improvements in how it is manufactured, with Avoton produced using a 22nm process, compared to 32nm for Centerton chips.

Image: Intel

Avoton also integrates a greater number of features onto SoCs than Centerton, including integrated gigabit Ethernet, SATA and USB 2.0 controllers — furthering lowering the overall power draw and increasing the efficiency of an Avoton-based system.

Avoton SoCs are expected to be clocked at up to 2.4GHz, with the ability to scale to higher speeds based on demand, and will have better general performance than Centerton. Performance improvements stem in part from Avoton's move to a new microarchitecture for its CPU cores, shifting from Saltwell to the Silvermont microarchitecture, which is also being used by Intel in its new mobile and tablet targeted Bay Trail platform. Silvermont introduces support for out-of-order instruction execution, which allows for more efficient processing per clock cycle, as well as more accurate branch prediction.

Avoton SoCs will also support up to 64GB of DDR3 RAM, compared to up to 8GB for a Centerton system, and have support for Error Correcting Code memory.

Upon launch Avoton will be competing with ARM-based microserver chips, which today are generally designed around ARM's 32-bit Cortex A9 processor core, which is based on ARM's v7 architecture.

Intel is claiming to have benchmarks showing better performance than ARM 32-bit SoCs.

"There are a lot of applications that take huge advantage of additional memory. With Avoton we're going up to 64GB, without 64-bit support you are constrained to around no more than 4GB," said Belli Kuttanna, Intel development group chief CPU architect.

"There are applications that can give you up to 10–15 times performance, just because the CPU is able to take advantage of more memory capacity."

If Intel's claims of Avoton delivering significantly better performance per watt than available ARM-based microserver SoCs were to be true it would mark a step forward from Centerton, which HP said delivered relatively similar performance to ARM-based alternatives in its Moonshot microservers.

The first 64-bit ARM-based microserver was also recently announced, the MiTAC 7-Star server system, which is powered by the eight-core X-Gene processor from Applied Micro. The first generation X-Gene chips have four dual-core modules for a total of eight ARM cores running at up to 2.5GHz, with a maximum of 256GB of memory across those cores. These chips are manufactured at a 40nm processes by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp.

Intel is also claiming "very, very" competitive performance with 64-bit ARM based microserver systems, but is not revealing the figures ahead of Wednesday's launch.

Counting in Avoton's favour against rival microserver chips is its support of 64-bit CPU and ECC memory, which are common features demanded in many traditional enterprise servers.

Intel's lead in process manufacturing — Atom C2000 chips will be manufactured at 22nm — should help it challenge its ARM-based rivals on power consumption, while its Silvermont microarchitecture should help boost performance relative to ARM chips based on the considerably older v7 architecture. One core fact Intel hasn't revealed is the cost of the Avoton SoC itself, which could obviously have a significant impact on purchasing decisions.

The next microserver chips released by Intel will be the Denverton and Broadwell BE Atom SoCs around the end of next year or the beginning of 2015, and will be manufactured to a 14nm process.

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