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!

Scalable Informatics Ceases Operations

March 23, 2017

On the same day we reported on the uncertain future for HPC compiler company PathScale, we are sad to learn that another HPC vendor, Scalable Informatics, is closing its doors. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

‘Strategies in Biomedical Data Science’ Advances IT-Research Synergies

March 23, 2017

“Strategies in Biomedical Data Science: Driving Force for Innovation” by Jay A. Etchings is both an introductory text and a field guide for anyone working with biomedical data. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

HPC Compiler Company PathScale Seeks Life Raft

March 23, 2017

HPCwire has learned that HPC compiler company PathScale has fallen on difficult times and is asking the community for help or actively seeking a buyer for its assets. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Google Launches New Machine Learning Journal

March 22, 2017

On Monday, Google announced plans to launch a new peer review journal and “ecosystem” Read more…

By John Russell

HPE Extreme Performance Solutions

HFT Firms Turn to Co-Location to Gain Competitive Advantage

High-frequency trading (HFT) is a high-speed, high-stakes world where every millisecond matters. Finding ways to execute trades faster than the competition translates directly to greater revenue for firms, brokerages, and exchanges. Read more…

Swiss Researchers Peer Inside Chips with Improved X-Ray Imaging

March 22, 2017

Peering inside semiconductor chips using x-ray imaging isn’t new, but the technique hasn’t been especially good or easy to accomplish. Read more…

By John Russell

LANL Simulation Shows Massive Black Holes Break ‘Speed Limit’

March 21, 2017

A new computer simulation based on codes developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) is shedding light on how supermassive black holes could have formed in the early universe contrary to most prior models which impose a limit on how fast these massive ‘objects’ can form. Read more…

Quantum Bits: D-Wave and VW; Google Quantum Lab; IBM Expands Access

March 21, 2017

For a technology that’s usually characterized as far off and in a distant galaxy, quantum computing has been steadily picking up steam. Read more…

By John Russell

Intel Ships Drives Based on 3D XPoint Non-volatile Memory

March 20, 2017

Intel Corp. has begun shipping new storage drives based on its 3D XPoint non-volatile memory technology as it targets data-driven workloads. Intel’s new Optane solid-state drives, designated P4800X, seek to combine the attributes of memory and storage in the same device. Read more…

By George Leopold

HPC Compiler Company PathScale Seeks Life Raft

March 23, 2017

HPCwire has learned that HPC compiler company PathScale has fallen on difficult times and is asking the community for help or actively seeking a buyer for its assets. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Quantum Bits: D-Wave and VW; Google Quantum Lab; IBM Expands Access

March 21, 2017

For a technology that’s usually characterized as far off and in a distant galaxy, quantum computing has been steadily picking up steam. Read more…

By John Russell

Trump Budget Targets NIH, DOE, and EPA; No Mention of NSF

March 16, 2017

President Trump’s proposed U.S. fiscal 2018 budget issued today sharply cuts science spending while bolstering military spending as he promised during the campaign. Read more…

By John Russell

CPU-based Visualization Positions for Exascale Supercomputing

March 16, 2017

In this contributed perspective piece, Intel’s Jim Jeffers makes the case that CPU-based visualization is now widely adopted and as such is no longer a contrarian view, but is rather an exascale requirement. Read more…

By Jim Jeffers, Principal Engineer and Engineering Leader, Intel

US Supercomputing Leaders Tackle the China Question

March 15, 2017

Joint DOE-NSA report responds to the increased global pressures impacting the competitiveness of U.S. supercomputing. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

New Japanese Supercomputing Project Targets Exascale

March 14, 2017

Another Japanese supercomputing project was revealed this week, this one from emerging supercomputer maker, ExaScaler Inc., and Keio University. The partners are working on an original supercomputer design with exascale aspirations. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Nvidia Debuts HGX-1 for Cloud; Announces Fujitsu AI Deal

March 9, 2017

On Monday Nvidia announced a major deal with Fujitsu to help build an AI supercomputer for RIKEN using 24 DGX-1 servers. Read more…

By John Russell

HPC4Mfg Advances State-of-the-Art for American Manufacturing

March 9, 2017

Last Friday (March 3, 2017), the High Performance Computing for Manufacturing (HPC4Mfg) program held an industry engagement day workshop in San Diego, bringing together members of the US manufacturing community, national laboratories and universities to discuss the role of high-performance computing as an innovation engine for American manufacturing. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

For IBM/OpenPOWER: Success in 2017 = (Volume) Sales

January 11, 2017

To a large degree IBM and the OpenPOWER Foundation have done what they said they would – assembling a substantial and growing ecosystem and bringing Power-based products to market, all in about three years. Read more…

By John Russell

TSUBAME3.0 Points to Future HPE Pascal-NVLink-OPA Server

February 17, 2017

Since our initial coverage of the TSUBAME3.0 supercomputer yesterday, more details have come to light on this innovative project. Of particular interest is a new board design for NVLink-equipped Pascal P100 GPUs that will create another entrant to the space currently occupied by Nvidia's DGX-1 system, IBM's "Minsky" platform and the Supermicro SuperServer (1028GQ-TXR). Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Tokyo Tech’s TSUBAME3.0 Will Be First HPE-SGI Super

February 16, 2017

In a press event Friday afternoon local time in Japan, Tokyo Institute of Technology (Tokyo Tech) announced its plans for the TSUBAME3.0 supercomputer, which will be Japan’s “fastest AI supercomputer,” Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

IBM Wants to be “Red Hat” of Deep Learning

January 26, 2017

IBM today announced the addition of TensorFlow and Chainer deep learning frameworks to its PowerAI suite of deep learning tools, which already includes popular offerings such as Caffe, Theano, and Torch. Read more…

By John Russell

Lighting up Aurora: Behind the Scenes at the Creation of the DOE’s Upcoming 200 Petaflops Supercomputer

December 1, 2016

In April 2015, U.S. Department of Energy Undersecretary Franklin Orr announced that Intel would be the prime contractor for Aurora: Read more…

By Jan Rowell

Is Liquid Cooling Ready to Go Mainstream?

February 13, 2017

Lost in the frenzy of SC16 was a substantial rise in the number of vendors showing server oriented liquid cooling technologies. Three decades ago liquid cooling was pretty much the exclusive realm of the Cray-2 and IBM mainframe class products. That’s changing. We are now seeing an emergence of x86 class server products with exotic plumbing technology ranging from Direct-to-Chip to servers and storage completely immersed in a dielectric fluid. Read more…

By Steve Campbell

Enlisting Deep Learning in the War on Cancer

December 7, 2016

Sometime in Q2 2017 the first ‘results’ of the Joint Design of Advanced Computing Solutions for Cancer (JDACS4C) will become publicly available according to Rick Stevens. He leads one of three JDACS4C pilot projects pressing deep learning (DL) into service in the War on Cancer. Read more…

By John Russell

BioTeam’s Berman Charts 2017 HPC Trends in Life Sciences

January 4, 2017

Twenty years ago high performance computing was nearly absent from life sciences. Today it’s used throughout life sciences and biomedical research. Genomics and the data deluge from modern lab instruments are the main drivers, but so is the longer-term desire to perform predictive simulation in support of Precision Medicine (PM). There’s even a specialized life sciences supercomputer, ‘Anton’ from D.E. Shaw Research, and the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center is standing up its second Anton 2 and actively soliciting project proposals. There’s a lot going on. Read more…

By John Russell

Leading Solution Providers

HPC Startup Advances Auto-Parallelization’s Promise

January 23, 2017

The shift from single core to multicore hardware has made finding parallelism in codes more important than ever, but that hasn’t made the task of parallel programming any easier. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

HPC Technique Propels Deep Learning at Scale

February 21, 2017

Researchers from Baidu’s Silicon Valley AI Lab (SVAIL) have adapted a well-known HPC communication technique to boost the speed and scale of their neural network training and now they are sharing their implementation with the larger deep learning community. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

CPU Benchmarking: Haswell Versus POWER8

June 2, 2015

With OpenPOWER activity ramping up and IBM’s prominent role in the upcoming DOE machines Summit and Sierra, it’s a good time to look at how the IBM POWER CPU stacks up against the x86 Xeon Haswell CPU from Intel. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Trump Budget Targets NIH, DOE, and EPA; No Mention of NSF

March 16, 2017

President Trump’s proposed U.S. fiscal 2018 budget issued today sharply cuts science spending while bolstering military spending as he promised during the campaign. Read more…

By John Russell

IDG to Be Bought by Chinese Investors; IDC to Spin Out HPC Group

January 19, 2017

US-based publishing and investment firm International Data Group, Inc. (IDG) will be acquired by a pair of Chinese investors, China Oceanwide Holdings Group Co., Ltd. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

US Supercomputing Leaders Tackle the China Question

March 15, 2017

Joint DOE-NSA report responds to the increased global pressures impacting the competitiveness of U.S. supercomputing. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Quantum Bits: D-Wave and VW; Google Quantum Lab; IBM Expands Access

March 21, 2017

For a technology that’s usually characterized as far off and in a distant galaxy, quantum computing has been steadily picking up steam. Read more…

By John Russell

Intel and Trump Announce $7B for Fab 42 Targeting 7nm

February 8, 2017

In what may be an attempt by President Trump to reset his turbulent relationship with the high tech industry, he and Intel CEO Brian Krzanich today announced plans to invest more than $7 billion to complete Fab 42. Read more…

By John Russell

  • arrow
  • Click Here for More Headlines
  • arrow
Share This