seamicro server

Intel is poised to ship its first chips for “microservers,” a hot new category where it has been trailing its rival Advanced Micro Devices.

AMD says that Intel has been playing catch-up, particularly since it bought microserver pioneer SeaMicro for $334 million early this year. But Intel, the world’s biggest chip maker, says it has actually been thinking about microservers — which use Intel’s low-power Atom microprocessors — for a long time. In an interview with VentureBeat, Intel Fellow Matt Adiletta (pictured below) said that he had been contemplating low-power servers since 2006 and he was the point person in getting SeaMicro, an innovative pioneer in microservers, to use Intel Atom chips in its first machines. AMD has also allied with ARM in hopes of outflanking Intel.

matt adilettaIn any case, microservers have become one of the most competitive battlegrounds in the multibillion-dollar server chip market. The whole idea is that it is more efficient to use small, highly efficient processors rather than big supercomputing beasts to process huge numbers of small workloads, like the tasks that data centers handle in serving web traffic. Intel is briefing reporters on Wednesday morning about “a new technology for data centers” in San Francisco. That’s where the company is expected to introduce its new code-named Centerton version of the Atom microprocessor for microservers. Another version, code-named Avoton, is coming next year.

AMD is still offering SeaMicro microservers with Intel chips in them. But at some point, it will have its own chips designed for the purpose. In that respect, while AMD can say its SeaMicro is a leader in microserver systems, Intel can rightly say that it is the only company shipping processors designed specifically for microservers today.

And those will likely be based on the low-power ARM architecture that AMD licensed. ARM chief executive Warren East sees microservers as its wedge into the huge data center server microprocessor market that has long been dominated by Intel.

Adiletta faced some skepticism as he built the case for increasing the density of processors so they could be used by the hundreds in a tightly packed server cabinet — without melting down a data center. His idea was the distribute a computing work load across a lot of low-cost servers, which would be better than having beefy servers working on light loads and becoming idle at some point.

Adiletta said he was inspired when former chief technology officer Pat Gelsinger asked him to explore the low-power blade server market, where thin, low-power server cards were used in servers to scale up big data centers.He had a conversation with Andy Bechtolsheim, co-founder of Sun Microsystems and chairman at Arista Networks. Adiletta also worked with researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in 2009 and started envisioning workloads for an Atom-based microserver.

He was the point man for Intel in winning a deal with SeaMicro. He saw the servers as a way to get rid of cabling, improve infrastructure, and get computing resources online more quickly so they can be used as needed. Microservers are turning out to be great for the era of Big Data and cloud computing. AMD views Intel’s latest efforts as late and its chronicle of Adiletta’s work as an attempt to rewrite history. SeaMicro executives, now at AMD, say that Intel fought SeaMicro on its choice of Intel’s Atom processors.

But Intel has to tread carefully. Intel executives have said that microservers might be 10 percent of the server chip market. But if they grow larger than that, they could cannibalize Intel’s sales of larger, more expensive server chips. And that could hurt Intel’s bottom line.