Intel has a timeline chart on its site, which depicts the evolution of its fabled Atom processor. This tiny electronic brain sits inside a Intel chipset and is regarded as very special since it drives a new range of power-efficient devices including netbooks, tablets and of course, Smartphones.
The Intel chart plots a journey from the first Atom release in 2008 for mobile Internet devices to the 2010 release intended for Smartphones and tablets.
But what makes this chart so interesting is the fact that it has not been updated with the most interesting use of the microprocessor: Atom-based web servers.
For years giant Data Centers delivering Internet-styled computing resources in such areas as the gaming industry have largely relied upon the Xeon range of processors to feed the cloud computing revolution marked by such services as Google Docs, Amazon Storage Cloud, and of course Virtual Internet’s VMware and OnApp PayG private and public clouds.
These big data centers consume a big energy footprint and are not exactly cheap to run.
They are also the engines powering virtualization technology, which is bringing down costs for web host customers who leverage the ability to consolidate several servers into one, “on-demand” — complete with a utility pricing.
But, in June 2010, the scenario above was positively impacted when a small 75-employee hardware company called SeaMicro emerged from obscurity to announce new Internet-Optimized x86-servers that reduced the power and space used by servers by nearly 75%.
It was able to do this by integrating Intel Atom processors with Ethernet switching, server management and load balancing to create a plug and play standards-based server without requiring any modifications to the software. Essentially, the Atom chip allowed SeaMicro to dramatically reduce the energy consumption stemming from the CPU of a server.
But, the most interesting thing about the SeaMicro technology is that they used the virtualization strategies of the cloud to tackle the other energy hogs on a traditional server rack which fall outside of the CPU.
“SeaMicro invented and patented a new technique in CPU I/O virtualization, which dramatically reduces non-CPU power draw by eliminating 90 percent of the components from the motherboard,” said SeaMicro.
“This CPU I/O virtualization allows SeaMicro to shrink a server motherboard from the size of a pizza box to the size of a credit card.”
According to SeaMicro, The SM10000 simplifies data center operations and management by eliminating layers of switches, terminal servers and load-balancing devices. The system is built on standards-based x86 CPUs, which means it is plug and play – customers can deploy the SM10000 without modifications to existing operating systems, application software or management tool.
“Server manufacturers made no accommodation for the new and different workloads and traffic patterns despite the highly specialized workloads that rose to dominance in the data center. This mismatch between specialized workloads and generalist servers is an underlying cause of the power consumption issue in the data center.”
Thus, the company took a novel approach and did not focus on “on redesigning power supplies or improving airflow.”
“Instead, SeaMicro brought together technical insights from CPU design, virtualization, supercomputing and networking to create a new server architecture optimized for scale-out infrastructures,” said their website.
As usual, it may be a misleading to imply that nobody had attempted this direction before.
Well, sort of.
Christopher Hipp and David Kirkeby commercialized blade servers around 2005 through a start-up called RLX. In their designs, the blade server is stripped down with a modular configuration to save space and energy. RLX would eventually, became a victim of the Dot Com bubble.
In February of this year, SeaMicro announced they had improved upon their 2010 atom server with the new SM10000, which further reduced server power and space. Using a 64-bit Atom microprocessor from Intel they were able to deliver even lower-power computing.
Using just one power efficient Atom chip set, SeaMicro could jam eight servers in a 5-inch by 11-inch circuit board.
By applying the concept of virtualization to the inside of a server SeaMicro designed custom chips that could take the tasks that were handled by everything beyond the Intel microprocessor and its chip set.
“The custom chips virtualized all of those other components so that it finds the resource when it’s needed. It essentially tricks the microprocessor into thinking that the rest of the system is there when it needs it,” said SeaMicro.
“We virtualized a lot of functions that took up a lot of space inside each server in a rack. It also did the same with functions such as storage, networking, and server management and load balancing.”
In the end SeaMicro eliminated 90 percent of the components from a system board using their patented CPU/IO virtualization.
So, how much could this save a web hosting company using SeaMicro Technology?
“Customers who spend about $4 million on SeaMicro equipment can wind up saving about $16 million in lower computing and power costs.”
That’s a very big number which is sure to influence decision-making in a number of web hosting companies.
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