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ARM wrestling

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SeaMicro last week announced its newest ultra-dense, ultra-low power Atom-based server solution. Our pal TPM gives it full coverage in this Reg article, but here’s the basic story.

SeaMicro's first system, the SM10000, crammed eight Atom single-core processors and 16GB of memory onto a 5” x 11” system board and combined 64 of these boards along with switches, fans, and space for 64 drives into a single 10U chassis. All in, the system supports a grand total of 512 server images.

The new box, cleverly named the SM10000-64, is the same thing in essence, but with a significant upgrade at the server board level.

The new boards use the upcoming Atom N570, a dual-core chip that can support 64-bit operating systems. It can address 4GB of memory, and it has Intel’s VT-x support for virtualization. The total core count on the boards and in the entire system remains the same.

Each dual-core Atom replaces two of the older single-core chips and leaves room for – as SeaMicro put it in a briefing – “future cool stuff”. I suggested they add extra user memory to store music and video files (i.e. porn), but was met with silence.The biggest physical change is doubled memory from 2GB per server to 4GB and, of course, the ability to address it.

Campaign against ARMs

To me, it looks like SeaMicro is Intel’s weapon of choice to blunt the ARM processor’s move into servers. As has been chronicled in the Reg and elsewhere, NVIDIA and a host of smaller companies is looking to morph the uber low-cost, low-power ARM chip into server processor form. With ARM, NVIDIA has a chance to take a clean-sheet approach to building flavors that are server-centric.

ARM's great advantage is that it doesn't have any legacy compatibilities to carry forward in new chips; it’s the most rasa the tabula has been since perhaps the DEC Alpha chip. But the ARM guys have a bit easier sledding than the Alpha floggers.

Back in Alpha’s day, DEC had to fab its own chips, and per-chip production costs were very high. Also the company had to adapt (or have others adapt) operating systems for it, and then convince ISVs to port applications.

ARM is a different story: it already has Linux variants, and Microsoft has pledged support for the chips. There are many options for chip fabbing, and current volumes for ARM chips far outstrip Intel and AMD combined on the x86 side of the market. But it is an open question on how much those economies of scale come into play in keeping down the per chip cost of Server ARM down.

SeaMicro powers down

What Intel and SeaMicro have going is a highly dense server solution that uses one-fourth the space and power of traditional servers for comparable throughput. The acquisition costs are roughly the same, but the operational costs should be about 75 per cent less expensive.

Intel and SeamMicro also have the massive x86 ecosystem – and this is a huge advantage. ISVs and customers alike can run the same code on the new SM10000-64 as they run on traditional x86 systems.

For web-centric customers, electricity is the highest operational expense, and the SeaMicro solution beats all other contenders by a huge margin on this score; this is what has fueled its success to date. The new system, with its larger memory, support for 64-bit apps, and virtualization support, should bring more into the fold.

It’s easy to see why Intel is showing a lot of interest in SeaMicro and showering them with support. SeaMicro is Intel’s best shot to get product into the market that can compete and win against ARM when it appears in server trim. ®

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