Server Farming

May 26 2009   3:49PM GMT

Quest for power efficient servers leads vendors to PC chips

Bridget Botelho Profile: Bridget Botelho

What was once a battle over who could offer the fastest, most powerful server has turned into a competition over which servers can operate on the fewest watts, leading vendors to put PC chips in x86 systems.

Scottie courtesy Image Shack

"I just can't do it captain, I don't have the power!"

This trend is the result of data center power constraints; IT folks simply don’t have abundant quantities of power to supply their servers any more, but still need to add more compute capacity somehow.

So, server vendors are on the hook to offer systems that operate on very little power, and every vendor wants the right to say they offer “the worlds most efficient” server. But it appears they hit the limit with the level of efficiency today’s x86 server chips can offer, so some vendors have moved on to PC chips.

For example, last week, Dell launched new servers with Taiwan-based Via Technologies Via Nano processors, which the companies say offer the best power efficiency of any processor on the market today. Prior to that, Intel’s Atom processors for notebook computers were launched in SuperMicro servers.

My response was, really? PC chips in servers? Sounds great if you only plan to run Tetris on your servers, because when you choose lower watt chips, you trade off performance.

But it appears certain markets are willing to make that compromise. According to Dell, their new Via Nano-based systems are designed for “hyper-scale customers in the search engine and Web hosting businesses…who typically choose general purpose 1U servers or low-end tower servers, and make compromises around the density, power, and/or manageability aspects associated with these alternatives.”

It will be interesting to see how far these PC-chip servers go, who adopts them and how Intel and AMD respond to the Via Nano, product-wise. Will Intel and AMD try to leapfrog Via’s Nano chip with something that consumes even less power? I’m going to take a guess and say, hell yeah. But really, how low can they go?

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