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Intel divided on whether mobile processors can make the grade in servers

Intel’s data center chief has slammed the trend to put low powered processors into large servers, claiming that ARM-based chips, and even the firm’s o

By PETER WHITE

Published: 3 March, 2011

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Intel’s data center chief has slammed the trend to put low powered processors into large servers, claiming that ARM-based chips, and even the firm’s own Atom, will remain in a niche in this sector, at best. The comments came as several firms, from Marvell to start-up Calxeda, look to leverage the ARM architecture to reduce power consumption in cloud servers, and as another start-up, SeaMicro, does the same with Atom. The development shows how the traditional dividing lines are blurring in processors, with the ARM platforms expanding into new sectors such as set-top boxes, while their own cellphone stronghold comes under attack from Atom and even MIPS.

Speaking at last week’s Morgan Stanley technology and telecoms conference, Kirk Skaugen, general manager of Intel’s data center unit, said: “We’ve been out talking about Atom and servers for several years to our customers under NDA. And candidly, there hasn’t been a lot of interest in that architecture in a broad sense. I could see if you go out four to five years maybe 10% of the total market, give or take a couple percent, could be interested in such an architecture.”

ARM CEO Warren East, in his own recent presentations, has been increasingly bullish about his architecture being ready for the high end server market. But Skaugen argues there is a long way to go, and it’s not all about performance. He said: “Now what’s the challenge that ARM has in that same form factor? Well, it has an instruction set issue. So if you’re going to do hosting what application do you host? We did application porting with Itanium, it took us about 10 years. Hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars to port about 14,000 applications.” He added that current ARM models are 32-bit processors, while Microsoft supports 64-bit operating systems. “Everything we do in servers for real servers will be 64-bit,” he concluded.

Such cold water has not stopped SeaMicro gaining high publicity for its promise of an Atom-based server priced at $148,000. It does this by putting 256 dual-core Atoms in one box, claiming about 25% of the power consumption of a traditional rack of machines.

And whatever the data center division of Intel may say, the Atom arm has its eye firmly on the server, and on keeping ARM out. This is a rare occasion where Intel has modified a chip specifically for a start-up. One of the weaknesses of the original design – as with ARM-based alternatives – was the 32-bit nature of Atom when most server software is written for 64-bit machines. So, according to GigaOM, SeaMicro executives went to Intel last summer and the two firms came up with a dual-core Atom that can deliver 64-bit processing and also doubles the memory to 4Gbytes. The dual-core design means SeaMicro can support 512 cores with half the number of actual chips, reducing motherboard space and power consumption (the latter by 15%).

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