July 24, 2013, 2:14 PM — One thing about Intel, it won't be caught looking twice. AMD caught it napping in the early aughts, and ARM seized the mobile market. But if ARM is spoiling for a fight in the server market, Intel is saying bring it.
ARM has done very well in the mobile and handset space, but servers seem an odd choice. However, there is a potential market for low-power chips. There are many workloads out there that don't require a CPU as powerful as the Xeon, Intel's server processor.
For example: serving up Web pages. A company like Google or Facebook may do intensive processing in the background but once the HTML is assembled, you don't need Xeon processor to send an HTML page down the wire. So it's processing overkill, and therefore wasted electricity. There is a potentially huge market in edge servers, the last line between the Web site and the user, that would do just fine with very low powered chips serving up HTML pages and in the process, save a ton of money on electricity.
The first company to address this was SeaMicro, which made a highly dense, 10u server based on Intel's Atom processor, even though Intel at the time was opposed to it. I know because SeaMicro told me at the time. That company was acquired by… AMD. But the idea was further validated with the launch of Calxeda, an Austin, Texas-based company with an ARM license that is working with big players like HP and Dell to make special ARM processors for servers.
Well, the empire is striking back. Intel has already announced Atom's for the server market, called Avoton, and yesterday, announced a new low-power System on Chip (SoC) server card set for release in 2014. Jason Waxman, general manager of Intel's Cloud Infrastructure group, said "people want consistency. They want 64 bits and software compatibility and ECC even on the low end." So the Atom SoC will share a lot with the Xeon.
Coming later this year is the Atom C2000, otherwise known as Avoton. Waxman showed off a 2u unit packed with the server chips for ultra-dense servers, which come with memory on the card, and had no separate power supply unit on the rack. Power comes into the server cabinet and is distributed to racks, rather than power supplies on each rack.
The C2000 is miles away from what ARM has to offer today. It's an 8-core processor with ECC memory, Intel Virtualization Technology, 64-bit addressable memory and a capacity of 64B. A 64-bit processor can address a lot more than 64GB but if you need that kind of memory, get a Xeon. Atom C2000 chips also integrate on-chip I/O, including four 1-Gigabit Ethernet ports, a SATA controller circuitry and a 16x PCI Express bus.
Intel said that thanks to core advancements and moving to 22nm design, Avoton will offer a seven-fold performance improvement over Intel's previous effort at an Atom-based server product, the 32nm S1200. The S1200 is on the market now. HP uses it in its Project Moonshot microservers.
Next year will come the 14nm Broadwell and Denverton SoCs. Diane Bryant, the senior vice president and general manager of the data center and connected systems group said the Broadwell SoC will actually be based on Xeon, not Atom, yet still be an SoC. It will feature integrated I/O, on-chip fabric interconnects and with requisite server features like ECC memory 64-bit memory.
ARM is expected to bring out a 64-bit processor late next year. By that point, Intel well be three generations ahead and probably two or three processes generations ahead. I'm not ready to bet on Intel in smartphones and tablets, but in the microserver business, it's clearly not going to be caught flat footed.