Intel Charts Path to Microserver Business

By Michael Feldman

March 17, 2011

This week Intel announced its intention to deliver chips for the burgeoning microserver market. Microservers are envisioned as the next big thing in hyperscale datacenters that are delivering Web content and lightweight software apps for the masses.

That market is being carved out by vendors like SeaMicro, Marvell, Dell, Tilera, Calxeda, and some others, who envision a growing opportunity for datacenter workloads that don’t need energy-sucking Xeons or Opterons to do their job. A handful of these enterprising companies have developed their first-generation microservers, mostly based on inexpensive, power-sipping Atom and ARM processors. In fact, because of the scale of these Internet datacenters, energy efficiency, price-performance, and density have become the prime considerations for building Web-based infrastructure.

Intel sees this market as comprising no more than 10 percent of overall server sales over the next four or five years, but that is large enough to get the chipmaker’s attention. The company’s announcement this week revealed a roadmap that includes both Xeon and Atom x86 processors aimed at the microserver space. That includes its recently released E3-1260L and E3-1220L Xeon chips, rated at 45 and 20 watts, respectively. In the second half of 2011, the company plans to deliver a 15-watt Sandy Bridge server part for this market. The first Atom server chip doesn’t arrive until 2012, and Intel is spec’ing that chip to come in at somewhere under 10 watts.

That didn’t stop SeaMicro from jumping the gun and building microservers with the just-released Atom N570, a 64-bit dual-core chip that has a TDP of just 8.5 watts. The new gear, announced last month, is an upgrade from the original SeaMicro server the company introduced in 2010, which used 32-bit single-core Atom N530 processors. Now SeaMicro has latched on to the up-market N570 (officially targeted for netbooks and notebooks) and is putting 256 of them in a 10U box. The CPUs are connected via SeaMicro’s proprietary fabric that delivers up to 1.28 terabits/second of aggregate bandwidth. In all, a nifty little 512-core x86 server that lists for $148,000.

So what does all this have to do with high performance computing? Right now, not a whole lot. From a performance point of view these x86 microserver chips are pretty wimpy compared to their more muscular Xeon brethren. For example, the quad-core E3-1260L runs at just 2.4 GHz compared to a traditional HPC-worthy Xeon, like the quad-core 3.2 GHz X5672. The E3-1260L also has only two memory channels versus three for the X5672, and only 8 MB of cache versus 12 MB for the X5672.

Basically you get about two-thirds of an HPC chip that uses about half the power. That might sound like a good trade-off until you consider that the E3’s are designed only for single-socket machines, so you would have to buy twice as many servers to get the same number of cores as in a traditional dual-socket box.

The starker contrast is the Atom N570 being used in the new SeaMicro gear. That processor runs at just 1.6 GHz, sports only 1 MB of cache, and can support a maximum of 4 GB of memory. (Oh, and as far as I can tell, there’s no support for ECC memory in any of the current Atom chips.) With half the number of cores running at half the speed, and with much less cache and memory, N570 performance will be just a fraction of the X5672’s.

On the other hand, at 8.5 watts, the power draw on the N570 is less than a tenth that of the X5672. And here’s the real kicker: the Atom is just $86 in quantities of a thousand. That’s about 1/16 the $1,440 price listed for the Xeon part.

The future Atom silicon that Intel will be officially targeting for microservers is likely to be more performant than the current N570 (and presumably include ECC as well). But the chipmaker has to thread a needle here. It can’t sell Xeons at $1,000-plus a pop if it’s also offering $100 Atoms that are just a few time slower. The ARM makers, by the way, will have no such conflict.

Intel imagines there’s some continuum of workloads, where 90 percent of users will stick with the faster CPUs represented by the traditional Xeon parts, and the rest will want stripped-down Xeons or pumped-up Atoms. The rationale is that many enterprise codes still rely on single-core performance and can’t be parallelized into a gazillion threads that take advantage of voluminous low-performing cores.

But many Web serving applications, like Facebook or Google search, naturally decompose into multiple threads that run more or less independently from one another, and without any messy virtualization. Also, these codes tend not to do a great deal of number crunching, which is just fine for Atom and ARM chips since they are not particular adept at executing more complex operations like floating point instructions.

That’s not to say these first-generation microservers are worthless for high performance computing. Where codes are easily decomposed into embarrassingly parallel execution and don’t rely on lots of floating point performance (like genetic sequencing apps), this simplified architecture could find great utility.

The truth is, though, no one really knows how the microserver business will play out or even what the size of the market will be. Web applications are evolving rapidly and may end up needing more powerful processors than recycled ARM or Atom designs. But Intel’s entry into the market marks something of a turning point. When the biggest chipmaker in the world decides to go after a smaller, lower margin market, we should assume it has done so for a very good reason.

Subscribe to HPCwire's Weekly Update!

Be the most informed person in the room! Stay ahead of the tech trends with industy updates delivered to you every week!

What’s New in HPC Research: September (Part 1)

September 18, 2018

In this new bimonthly feature, HPCwire will highlight newly published research in the high-performance computing community and related domains. From exascale to quantum computing, the details are here. Check back every Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

House Passes $1.275B National Quantum Initiative

September 17, 2018

Last Thursday the U.S. House of Representatives passed the National Quantum Initiative Act (NQIA) intended to accelerate quantum computing research and development. Among other things it would establish a National Quantu Read more…

By John Russell

Nvidia Accelerates AI Inference in the Datacenter with T4 GPU

September 14, 2018

Nvidia is upping its game for AI inference in the datacenter with a new platform consisting of an inference accelerator chip--the new Turing-based Tesla T4 GPU--and a refresh of its inference server software packaged as Read more…

By George Leopold

HPE Extreme Performance Solutions

Introducing the First Integrated System Management Software for HPC Clusters from HPE

How do you manage your complex, growing cluster environments? Answer that big challenge with the new HPC cluster management solution: HPE Performance Cluster Manager. Read more…

IBM Accelerated Insights

A Crystal Ball for HPC

People are notoriously bad at predicting the future.  This very much includes experts. In the Forbes article “Why Most Predictions Are So Bad” Philip Tetlock discusses the largest and best-known test of the accuracy of expert predictions which show that any experts would do better if they make random guesses. Read more…

NSF Highlights Expanded Efforts for Broadening Participation in Computing

September 13, 2018

Today, the Directorate of Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) of the NSF released a letter highlighting the expansion of its broadening participation in computing efforts. The letter was penned by Jam Read more…

By Staff

House Passes $1.275B National Quantum Initiative

September 17, 2018

Last Thursday the U.S. House of Representatives passed the National Quantum Initiative Act (NQIA) intended to accelerate quantum computing research and developm Read more…

By John Russell

Nvidia Accelerates AI Inference in the Datacenter with T4 GPU

September 14, 2018

Nvidia is upping its game for AI inference in the datacenter with a new platform consisting of an inference accelerator chip--the new Turing-based Tesla T4 GPU- Read more…

By George Leopold

DeepSense Combines HPC and AI to Bolster Canada’s Ocean Economy

September 13, 2018

We often hear scientists say that we know less than 10 percent of the life of the oceans. This week, IBM and a group of Canadian industry and government partner Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Rigetti (and Others) Pursuit of Quantum Advantage

September 11, 2018

Remember ‘quantum supremacy’, the much-touted but little-loved idea that the age of quantum computing would be signaled when quantum computers could tackle Read more…

By John Russell

How FPGAs Accelerate Financial Services Workloads

September 11, 2018

While FSI companies are unlikely, for competitive reasons, to disclose their FPGA strategies, James Reinders offers insights into the case for FPGAs as accelerators for FSI by discussing performance, power, size, latency, jitter and inline processing. Read more…

By James Reinders

Update from Gregory Kurtzer on Singularity’s Push into FS and the Enterprise

September 11, 2018

Container technology is hardly new but it has undergone rapid evolution in the HPC space in recent years to accommodate traditional science workloads and HPC systems requirements. While Docker containers continue to dominate in the enterprise, other variants are becoming important and one alternative with distinctly HPC roots – Singularity – is making an enterprise push targeting advanced scale workload inclusive of HPC. Read more…

By John Russell

At HPC on Wall Street: AI-as-a-Service Accelerates AI Journeys

September 10, 2018

AIaaS – artificial intelligence-as-a-service – is the technology discipline that eases enterprise entry into the mysteries of the AI journey while lowering Read more…

By Doug Black

No Go for GloFo at 7nm; and the Fujitsu A64FX post-K CPU

September 5, 2018

It’s been a news worthy couple of weeks in the semiconductor and HPC industry. There were several HPC relevant disclosures at Hot Chips 2018 to whet appetites Read more…

By Dairsie Latimer

TACC Wins Next NSF-funded Major Supercomputer

July 30, 2018

The Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) has won the next NSF-funded big supercomputer beating out rivals including the National Center for Supercomputing Ap Read more…

By John Russell

IBM at Hot Chips: What’s Next for Power

August 23, 2018

With processor, memory and networking technologies all racing to fill in for an ailing Moore’s law, the era of the heterogeneous datacenter is well underway, Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Requiem for a Phi: Knights Landing Discontinued

July 25, 2018

On Monday, Intel made public its end of life strategy for the Knights Landing "KNL" Phi product set. The announcement makes official what has already been wide Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

CERN Project Sees Orders-of-Magnitude Speedup with AI Approach

August 14, 2018

An award-winning effort at CERN has demonstrated potential to significantly change how the physics based modeling and simulation communities view machine learni Read more…

By Rob Farber

ORNL Summit Supercomputer Is Officially Here

June 8, 2018

Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) together with IBM and Nvidia celebrated the official unveiling of the Department of Energy (DOE) Summit supercomputer toda Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

New Deep Learning Algorithm Solves Rubik’s Cube

July 25, 2018

Solving (and attempting to solve) Rubik’s Cube has delighted millions of puzzle lovers since 1974 when the cube was invented by Hungarian sculptor and archite Read more…

By John Russell

AMD’s EPYC Road to Redemption in Six Slides

June 21, 2018

A year ago AMD returned to the server market with its EPYC processor line. The earth didn’t tremble but folks took notice. People remember the Opteron fondly Read more…

By John Russell

MLPerf – Will New Machine Learning Benchmark Help Propel AI Forward?

May 2, 2018

Let the AI benchmarking wars begin. Today, a diverse group from academia and industry – Google, Baidu, Intel, AMD, Harvard, and Stanford among them – releas Read more…

By John Russell

Leading Solution Providers

SC17 Booth Video Tours Playlist

Altair @ SC17


AMD @ SC17


ASRock Rack @ SC17

ASRock Rack



DDN Storage @ SC17

DDN Storage

Huawei @ SC17


IBM @ SC17


IBM Power Systems @ SC17

IBM Power Systems

Intel @ SC17


Lenovo @ SC17


Mellanox Technologies @ SC17

Mellanox Technologies

Microsoft @ SC17


Penguin Computing @ SC17

Penguin Computing

Pure Storage @ SC17

Pure Storage

Supericro @ SC17


Tyan @ SC17


Univa @ SC17


Pattern Computer – Startup Claims Breakthrough in ‘Pattern Discovery’ Technology

May 23, 2018

If it weren’t for the heavy-hitter technology team behind start-up Pattern Computer, which emerged from stealth today in a live-streamed event from San Franci Read more…

By John Russell

Sandia to Take Delivery of World’s Largest Arm System

June 18, 2018

While the enterprise remains circumspect on prospects for Arm servers in the datacenter, the leadership HPC community is taking a bolder, brighter view of the x86 server CPU alternative. Amongst current and planned Arm HPC installations – i.e., the innovative Mont-Blanc project, led by Bull/Atos, the 'Isambard’ Cray XC50 going into the University of Bristol, and commitments from both Japan and France among others -- HPE is announcing that it will be supply the United States National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) with a 2.3 petaflops peak Arm-based system, named Astra. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

D-Wave Breaks New Ground in Quantum Simulation

July 16, 2018

Last Friday D-Wave scientists and colleagues published work in Science which they say represents the first fulfillment of Richard Feynman’s 1982 notion that Read more…

By John Russell

Intel Pledges First Commercial Nervana Product ‘Spring Crest’ in 2019

May 24, 2018

At its AI developer conference in San Francisco yesterday, Intel embraced a holistic approach to AI and showed off a broad AI portfolio that includes Xeon processors, Movidius technologies, FPGAs and Intel’s Nervana Neural Network Processors (NNPs), based on the technology it acquired in 2016. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Intel Announces Cooper Lake, Advances AI Strategy

August 9, 2018

Intel's chief datacenter exec Navin Shenoy kicked off the company's Data-Centric Innovation Summit Wednesday, the day-long program devoted to Intel's datacenter Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

TACC’s ‘Frontera’ Supercomputer Expands Horizon for Extreme-Scale Science

August 29, 2018

The National Science Foundation and the Texas Advanced Computing Center announced today that a new system, called Frontera, will overtake Stampede 2 as the fast Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

GPUs Power Five of World’s Top Seven Supercomputers

June 25, 2018

The top 10 echelon of the newly minted Top500 list boasts three powerful new systems with one common engine: the Nvidia Volta V100 general-purpose graphics proc Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

The Machine Learning Hype Cycle and HPC

June 14, 2018

Like many other HPC professionals I’m following the hype cycle around machine learning/deep learning with interest. I subscribe to the view that we’re probably approaching the ‘peak of inflated expectation’ but not quite yet starting the descent into the ‘trough of disillusionment. This still raises the probability that... Read more…

By Dairsie Latimer

  • arrow
  • Click Here for More Headlines
  • arrow
Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!
Share This