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Intel discloses sub-10-watt 'Centerton' Atom chip

You've seen microservers - behold the, um, picoserver?

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Server chip juggernaut Intel is hosting its Forum Beijing summit with partners and customers this week, and Diane Bryant, the new general manager of the company's Data Center and Connected Systems group, talked a little bit about some forthcoming Xeon and Atom processors for microservers.

It took Intel a little while to warm up to microservers, which are dense machines suitable for dedicated hosting providers looking for cheap server nodes with modest computing power as well as for some hyperscale web applications where CPU, memory, and I/O needs on a node are similarly modest and density of compute, low power consumption, and inexpensive servers are all paramount.

The poster child for microservers based on Intel processors was - of course - upstart server maker SeaMicro, which launched a super-dense machine with integrated and virtualized networking sporting hundreds of Atom and Xeon cores. But at the end of February, Intel's rival Advanced Micro Devices snapped up SeaMicro for $334m – and only a month after launching Xeon E3-based microserver nodes for its SM10000 chassis. AMD has since hinted about its plans for microservers and the SeaMicro "Freedom" interconnect, and launched single-socket Opteron 3200 chips aimed explicitly at microservers.

Intel defines a microserver as a single-socket machine that has 64-bit processing, error correction scrubbing on main memory, and a minimalist approach to memory, I/O, and storage capacity. Intel has said further that microservers might eventually account for somewhere on the order of 10 per cent of the overall server market based on shipments, and that its Xeon processors would be suitable for around 7 per cent of the total market - and Atoms gussied up with server features would address maybe 3 per cent. In its latest presentations, AMD says single-socket servers will account for around 20 per cent of server processor shipments; presumably this includes baby tower servers sold to SMBs as well as microservers sold to hyperscale web app and hosting companies. It is hard to judge how large the microserver market might ultimately be, but one thing is clear: AMD is gearing up to fight Intel for control over it.

AMD fired off its Opteron 3200 volley two weeks ago, which with 85 watt and 45 watt parts were not particularly impressive on the thermals but with four and eight cores did alright on the performance. And Intel today is showing that it is loading up with two new chips aimed directly at AMD's microserver aspirations and looking around for the matches to light the cannon.

At IDF Beijing, Bryant divulged that Intel would indeed soon launch a Xeon E3 processor based on its "Ivy Bridge" processor design and implemented in its 22 nanometer Tri-Gate wafer baking processes. The current Xeon E3-1260L low-voltage part for microservers, which has four cores spinning at 2.4GHz, is rated at 45 watts, while the two-core Xeon E3-1220L runs at 2.2GHz and is rated at a mere 20 watts. Intel is not divulging the feeds and speeds of the forthcoming low-voltage Ivy Bridge Xeons, but hints that due to the jump down to 22 nanometers it will be able to get better thermals than the current "Sandy Bridge" Xeon E3s. This Ivy Bridge Xeon E3 chip will launch sometime during the second quarter.

For many months now, Intel has been talking about a future server-designed Atom chip that would come in under 10 watts, and Bryant disclosed that this Atom chip is code-named "Centerton" and would be available sometime in the second half of the year. This Centerton Atom will have full 64-bit processing on its two cores, ECC on its DDR3 memory, and will sport VT-x virtualization assistance electronics; it will also weigh in at only 6 watts on Intel's TDP scale.

That is a heck of a lot more impressive than the 15 watts that the Pentium 350 chip, which launched last November for microservers, can deliver. The Pentium 350 had two cores running at 1.2GHz and like the other two Xeon chips, topped out at two memory channels and 32GB of main memory. All three of these chips have simultaneous multithreading, but Intel has not said whether or not the future Centerton Atom will have it. The odds favor Centerton having HyperThreading.

Intel has also not said what the thermal bands will be on the future Ivy Bridge Xeon E3 parts aimed at microservers, but if history is any guide, there will be 15, 20, and 45 watt parts like there are in the current Sandy Bridge lineup. But then again, if Intel can squeeze down the thermals a bit more thanks to the move to 22 nanometers, it might be able to do 10, 15, and 40 watts and also boost performance while adding other features.

We'll see before too long. ®

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