Intel Wants Atom Inside Almost Everything

Intel Corp. desperately wants the hit Atom netbook processor inside smartphones, cars -- even factory robots.

After initial reluctance, it's also pushing Atoms for lower-end desktop and notebook PCs.

For only one market is the Atom entirely verboten: server computers. Intel wants to protect this plum market, where it sells its latest and fastest processors and reaps its highest profits. Its Xeon family of server CPUs range in price from $200 to $3,000 for those destined for four-way to eight-way servers, according to Nathan Brookwood, an analyst with Insight64. Intel sells its Atom CPU for as little as $29.

Marketed like sports cars, blazing-fast server CPUs are also power hogs, unable to tamp down their consumption even at idle.

"If you want Ferrari-like performance, you're going to get Ferrari-like mileage," said Ian Lao, an analyst with In-Stat Inc.

But as energy prices rise, an increasing number of users and vendors are experimenting with the Mini Cooper approach - that smaller can get you there just fine and at less cost.

"People may laugh at the idea of an Intel Atom server, but it all depends on what you want to do," said consultant and Green Data Center Blog author Dave Ohara. .

Meanwhile,U.K.-based Tranquil PC Ltd. is selling Windows Home Servers running the Atom CPU. A Chicago hosting provider, SingleHop Inc., is leasing dual-core Atom servers to small business customers.

"There is definitely potential in the low-end server space," Lao said. "If the application is what I call a simple 'data pusher' with little computation involved, an Atom server could be suited for that."

But Microsoft Research is even testing Atom for large-scale data centers.

"Lots of companies are experimenting with various usages including Microsoft," acknowledged an Intel spokesman in a Monday e-mail. "While some may experiment with servers, the current Atom is not the right fit for these opportunities. However, as we enter the many-core era and more devices and machines add Internet access, our Xeon, Core and Atom opportunities will be almost endless."

But proponents say that Atom's merits -- low power consumption, fast sleep/wake features, low price -- already make it worthy today.

For instance, Microsoft Research believes that the average server is sitting around doing nothing 75% of the time. In response, it is developing software that can put Atom servers to sleep, during which they use nearly zero power and instantly wake them on demand.

Atom CPUs, because they were originally targeted for mobile PCs like netbooks, have advanced sleep and power-saving features that conventional server CPUs lack.

The resulting energy savings are potentially so high that Atom servers might make sense, if judged by this formula: total cost, including energy costs over time, divided by the processing work actually delivered, instead of the conventional formula, which is dividing the CPU price by its maximum potential performance, i.e. its clock speed (GHz rating) or number of teraflops (trillion of mathematical calculations per second it can perform).

To reduce the preponderance of underused, power-draining servers, recent solutions have focused on two areas: Using virtualization to shift workloads to underused servers, or rewriting applications to better take advantage of multithreading, multicore CPUs.

The problem, Ohara said, is that many server applications are not multicore enabled or easily virtualized. Also, virtualization doesn't always make sense. A data center may be too small to justify the upfront investment, he said. Or a data center may have hosting customers that, for security and liability reasons, prefer to keep their data on their own servers, rather than tying it with others in a virtualized fabric, Ohara said.

Ohara said Atom servers make sense for non-compute intensive applications such as home servers, small businesses and branch office servers, and perhaps servers for low-traffic Web sites.

But other areas? Not so much, said other analysts, citing these reasons:

Not enough bang for the buck: Whether intentionally crippled by Intel, as Ohara contended, or not, Atom CPUs just "aren't high performers," said independent analyst Jack Gold. "The whole intent with servers is to move a whole lot of data around ... Atoms just aren't optimized for this fast I/O." While IT managers care about power costs, their job ultimately hinges on snappy server response times, which Atoms don't help. "If server performance is bad, they're going to hear about it from users," Gold said.

Server sprawl: To duplicate the might of a single, multiway, multicore Xeon server might require dozens or even hundreds of Atom servers. That can quickly "get ugly," Gold said, due to the immense amount of IT labor needed to manage them. Also, the extra footprint required by the Atom boxes might outweigh their energy savings when real estate prices start going back up again. "Color me skeptical," Brookwood said. "Rather than armies of Atom-type arrays, I think the industry is going to keep moving toward a smaller number of larger Xeon boxes, all running virtualization."

Overstated energy savings: In order to keep costs down and performance acceptable, each Atom server would likely have its own hard drive, rather than be attached to a central pool of storage servers, Brookwood said. Direct-attached storage like local hard drives tend to use a lot more energy per TB than large storage pools, Brookwood said. Attempting to boost performance and cut energy usage by installing solid-state drives (SSDs) would jack up the server price, he said.

Intel server chips incorporating Atom features, just not its cut-rate price: Analysts such as Lao expect Intel to bring in power-sipping features similar to the Atom's into its new Xeon processors based on the Nehalem architecture, such as the ability to let applications or users completely turn off processor cores when idle. Ohara is skeptical about how much effect that will have, but Lao said it will enable Intel to "maintain that [market] segmentation" between Atoms and Xeons and prevent most customers from going for Intel's cheaper offering. As a last resort, Intel can try to prevent manufacturers from building Atom servers, Gold said. Though antitrust wrangling and lawsuits may ensue, Gold argued that "at the end of the day, Intel has the right to sell what they want to people."

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