Intel today launched a more powerful chip targeted at the microserver market, which should allow these low-power machines to tackle a broader range of computing workloads.
Microservers are designed for workloads requiring small amounts of processing power that need to be carried out many times, usually concurrently — serving content to users of a popular web page or app, for example.
By carrying out these simple tasks using small servers packed into dense clusters, which consume little energy compared with standard Xeon- and Operton-based systems, companies can reduce running costs and free up datacentre space.
The first generation of microservers — commonly based on Intel Centerton Atom S1200-series chips — were generally used for computationally simple tasks, such as serving static elements on a web page.
Intel's Atom-based Avoton SoCs (System on a Chip) detailed today step up the sort of tasks that microservers can carry out by increasing the processing power compared with the Centerton series. Avoton-based microservers will be able to tackle tasks requiring somewhat more demanding server-side processing when serving content to the web.
"These products are going to get more into areas where there's light server-side computation or in video streaming where there is some decoding required," Gartner research director Errol Rasit said.
Avoton is part of the C2000 series of Atom SoCs. These SoCs are targeted at more than microservers, with Intel also aiming for the chip to go inside routers, switches, network security appliances and cold storage. Intel today also launched another C2000 SoC called Rangeley, which is designed for networking equipment.
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".
Avoton is available in a variety of SKUs, ranging from dual-core SoCs with a base speed of 1.7GHz up to eight-core SoCs rated at 2.4GHz.
Intel says the Atom C2000 series offer between four to 10 times the performance of its Centerton Atom S1260, or up to six times better performance per watt. With the microserver primarily designed to lower energy costs, one of the most important metrics for microserver SoCs is performance per watt.
Compared with an ARM-based microserver SoC, the 32-bit Cortex A9, Intel is claiming a performance lead of between four and 38 times — see below. Avoton performance is shown in dark blue, Centerton in light blue and the ARM-based Marvell ARMADA XP and Calxeda ECX-1000 in green:
On tests that reflect actual server workloads — such as running the LAMP software stack, Java software and Memcached — Intel also measured a significant increase in performance over the Atom S1260 and competing ARM SoCs:
Intel Atom microserver SoCs are able to address more memory than competing 32-bit ARM-based SoCs thanks to Centerton and Avoton being built on 64-bit CPUs.
Avoton processors can support up to 64GB of memory, and Intel says this additional memory support can lead to a 10–15X performance boost in certain applications. Avoton also supports Error Correcting Code (ECC) memory, which is important for many enterprise applications.
The first 64-bit ARM-based microserver was also announced recently, the MiTAC 7-Star server system, which is powered by the eight-core X-Gene processor from Applied Micro.
Intel said it is "expecting" Avoton SoCs to deliver 2.2 times better performance per watt than 64-bit ARM microserver SoCs.
Improvements in Avoton over Centerton stem from many areas, such as Avoton SoCs being manufactured using 22nm Tri-Gate 3D transistors, and based on a new more efficient CPU microarchitecture known as Silvermont.
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.
With Avoton, Intel has also increased the power consumption of boards at the top end of its microserver range, the most power-hungry boards with C2000 SoCs consuming a maximum of 20W, compared with 8W for the highest-rated Centeron. The lowest power consumption of a C2000 SoC board remains at 6W, the same as Centerton.
ARM-based microservers, such as the Calxeda ECX-1000 with its 5W TDP, have a low maximum power draw, which Gartner's Rasit said might make them a better choice for very simple web serving, despite Intel's claims of better performance per watt.
"When you're looking at extreme low energy and extreme low performance, then some of the ARM architectures will come in at a lower threshold," said Rasit.
"When we're talking about very simple static web serving, there will be lower performance-per-watt products out there that might be better suited [than Avoton]."
However, Intel chips are in the vast majority of servers today, which may sway organisations against the potential disruption of swapping to hardware based on ARM's Risc architecture — particularly when power consumption is similar for both products.
Avoton comes to HP Moonshot
HP will start shipping Avoton-based microserver cartridges in November part of its Moonshot range.
Each Avoton-based cartridge will include a single eight-core Avoton SoC, running at up to 2.7GHz and supporting up to 32GB of memory. Forty-five of these cartridges will slot into a 4.3U chassis, for a total of 360 cores, with each 47U server rack able to contain up to 10 chassis for 3,600 cores.
By comparison, the same 4.3U chassis would fit about four single- or dual-socket 1U servers, which with six- to eight-core server CPUs would deliver a maximum of 64 cores, albeit offering far higher performance than each Avoton CPU core.
Each chassis includes power, networking and cooling infrastructure that is shared between each cartridge.
Customers testing HP's Avoton-based boards include government organisations, financial institutions, retail customers and hosting service providers.
Telecoms operator Ericsson will use Atom C2000 SoCs as a switch controller in its Ericsson Cloud System, which is designed to help mobile operators make their network and IT infrastructure more efficient, when it launches next year.
Whereas the first generation of Moonshot systems, built on Intel Atom S1200-based cartridges, are designed for serving static elements in a web page, Angela Cross, UK and Ireland manager for ISS and software at HP, said Avoton would open up new more computationally challenging use cases for microservers.
HP will be releasing at least two further Moonshot server cartridges in November, including cartridges based on chips not designed by Intel. Earlier in the year HP discussed plans to release an AMD-based cartridge with integrated APUs (accelerated processing units) focused on gaming and video transcoding, as well as a quad-processor cartridge using a 32-bit ARM Cortex A9-based Calxeda SoC that can scale up to 1,800 server nodes per rack.
What's the future for microservers?
Because microservers are suited to quite a narrow range of tasks, rather than the wider general-purpose computing capabilities of traditional servers, the main demand for microservers is coming from companies that serve huge amounts of content over the web and where electricity bills account for a large proportion of their running costs.
Diane Bryant, general manager for Intel's Datacenter and Connected Systems Group, said: "We have demonstrated Intel's move from a general-purpose compute provider" to "delivering targeted solutions for the various workloads running in the datacentre".
"When you look at a mainstream enterprise datacentre sometimes that doesn't make sense because you're building a datacentre around a number of general-purpose components," said Gartner's Rasit.
"That's why we see large-scale web providers and hyperscale organisations that have a bias towards a particular scale of application where it makes sense — they will very easily see the benefits whereas in a mixed workload environment it will only be an incremental benefit for a small number of applications.
"That's where we're seeing most of the activity in those self-build organisations that design their own systems and that have extreme control over the application code and application architecture," he said, adding that large financial institutions are also turning to microservers to run custom code.
Intel is targeting a number of use cases for the Avoton, such as entry web hosting with the C2350 and C2530, cold storage for the C2550 and front-end web server for scale-out workloads for the C2550 and C2750.