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The Microserver: Three Key Players, Three Different Views

The Microserver: Three Key Players, Three Different Views


The idea to use low-power servers for the data center is not new. Not even the idea of a microserver is, per se, revolutionary and has been around for quite a while.

But the thought that processor architectures we are using in our phones and everyday appliances could power very specific portions of the future data center is intriguing because of the changing requirements of the data center landscape we are experiencing now. As ARM and Intel are pushing for early traction in this market, we talked with both companies about their vision for the microserver, and brought AMD's newly acquired SeaMicro microserver unit into the mix to represent the vendor view.

Microserver is a fairly new term that we are getting used to hearing these days. Typically, we understand it as a device that uses a processor and sub-system architecture that is substantially different from the usual high-density, low-power x86 servers in use today. The promise is that, for certain tasks, these devices will consume substantially less power and will require less space than incumbent, mostly x86-based, systems.

IntelIntelIn the past, microserver-like devices were described as server appliances and were available in the form of products such as the Cobalt Microserver that initially implemented MIPS R5000-series processors and later AMD and Intel CPUs in the second half of the 1990s. Often, microservers were used for very specific purposes and not in a strategy to replace existing data center structures. One of the most targeted, early uses of this category was the Onboard Internet Microserver developed by Pratt & Whitney in 2001. This embedded device was tailored for the use in the aerospace industry to process static data.

Today, hardware makers are seeing an opportunity to address static data in modern data centers with a similar approach again. Extreme-low power processors can address very specific tasks and potentially strip huge costs from operating expenses by eliminating overpowered servers that require massive power supply, cooling and space.

AMD Now Owns SeaMicroAMD Now Owns SeaMicroThe microserver market shapes up to be played by three very distinct candidates.

From the top, Intel will be moving downmarket with a tuned version of its Atom processor, code-named "Centerton." From the bottom, ARM is seeing an opportunity to move upmarket with a 64-bit architecture that will be driven by an armada of manufacturing partners such as Marvell, Freescale, Qualcomm, TI, and Nvidia within two years. The third critical participant will be the vendor segment with powerhouses such as Dell and HP, as well as pioneer SeaMicro, which fills a very special role due to its recent acquisition by AMD and unique approach and experience to integrate small processors within a tight space.

Both Intel and ARM consider the microserver market a substantial opportunity for their business, but on very different levels and with very distinct focus areas that, surprisingly, do not show excessive overlap at this time.

Let's have a closer look at their viewpoints and what SeaMicro believes vendors need to do to succeed.

Wolfgang GruenerWolfgang GruenerWolfgang Gruener is a contributor to Tom's IT Pro. He is currently principal analyst at Ndicio Research, a market analysis firm that focuses on cloud computing and disruptive technologies, and maintains the blog. An 18-year veteran in IT journalism and market research, he previously published TG Daily and was managing editor of Tom's Hardware news, which he grew from a link collection in the early 2000s into one of the most comprehensive and trusted technology news sources.

See here for all of Wolfgang's Tom's IT Pro articles.