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Intel Centerton server-class Atoms: How low can you go?

Reduced-power virtualisation - take that, ARM

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Well, fine. But how idle are you? Power-wise, of course

The Core i7 2820QM idles around 15 watts; this means it idles at roughly twice the maximum power consumption of the Atom S1260. Given the under-load power consumption, it's harder (and more expensive) to design a solution geared to extreme temperature environments around the Core processors than it is these Centerton Atoms.

The 2820QM – a notebook processor – is a lot closer to the Atom's light-duty target than behemoths like the Xeon. Indeed, I chose it as my comparison chip because the performance per watt profile was among the best of the entire Sandy Bridge generation.

Centerton does not want to play video

Centerton Atom crunching video ... CPU says no (click to enlarge)

Despite this, it's clear that the Core processors are a simply a bad choice for any situation where you need a system to sit around idle most of the time, deal with high temperatures or where you really aren't going to be doing a lot of work on them.

The converse of that is that the Centerton Atoms are not rock stars. You can forget decoding your library of 720p H.264 high-profile video. It isn't going to happen. If you need a side of multimedia with your Atom then you had better get a GPU with a native decoder, or pay the power tithe and head on up to a Core processor.

The X9SBAA-F

Supermicro Miniserver

Aww ... it wants to be a server when it grows up

Supermicro's implementation of the Centerton Atoms strikes me as a great example of this category of server "done right". Supermicro slapped an IPMI module onto the motherboard; the idea of an ultra-low-power mini-ITX miniserver with full lights-out management makes me happy.

The board has two Intel network interfaces and four SATA3 ports which to my mind gives it all manner of uses. Put your favourite Linux distro on there and it makes a fine router; it will cheerfully handle a full 100Mbit of traffic while doing some reasonably intensive deep packet inspection.

The X9SBAA-F is a great file server for spinning rust, but you are emphatically not going to software RAID5 four Intel 520 480GB flash drives. The CPU isn't fast enough to do that without costing you speed. Still, if you're looking for the basis of your next home network storage box, look no further: this is the motherboard you're looking for.

I also like this board as a light-duty endpoint. The case I got it in has VESA mounting brackets and it is a perfect thin client, web browsing box and moderate-use office system.

As a server I find it wholly adequate for all my webserving needs. Granted, I don't run Facebook out of my living room, but it handled several thousand simultaneous hits to my website without complaint and flung the email to and fro like a champ.

Intel Centerton in a Supermicro Chassis

At this size even SO-DIMMs look big

Supermicro has gone the extra mile with its X9SBAA-F design; with thermals to 60°C and IPMI (with a dedicated NIC), this is exactly the sort of board you want to build into an "install and forget" appliance. It won't drink much power and after you forget where it physically is, and you can get in below the OS level to do whatever maintenance you need.

Conclusion

The Centerton Atom can take up to 8GB of RAM and it supports hardware virtualisation. It is the lowest-power (certainly lowest idle power) fully virtualisation-capable x86 server you are going to be able to get for some time.

There's an awful lot of computing that we do which doesn't need the horsepower of our top-end chips. We have many things that that sit around idle and only wake up once every now and again to do a little bit of work before idling some more.

We simply don't need big, beefy Core systems to do this kind of work and that is where the Centerton Atoms shine. Supermicro did yeoman's work on its initial Centerton offering, but I find myself eager to see what more can be done with these units. Consider something like its Microcloud - 12 systems in 3U, but each system is an E3 Xeon with up to a 69W CPU!

How many Centerton Atoms could be crammed into that same space? It would make dedicated servers a lot easier. It would also let me get around some of Microsoft's ridiculous VDI licensing restrictions by providing service from dedicated hardware that was "good enough". I want SeaMicro-like devices made out of these Atoms. I suspect that the innovation around these low-idle-servers has only just begun. ®

* I was contacted by Supermicro and informed that the system as a whole is rated only to 40 degrees Celsius despite what is listed on the page for the motherboard itself.

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