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Energy Efficiency in the Cloud

by Nik Simpson  |  June 23, 2010  |  1 Comment

I’ve touched on the possibility of using non-traditional hardware architectures such as ARM-based servers in previous posts on the Burton Group blog (see here, here) but some recent announcements from AMD, SeaMicro, and Tilera are starting to make a clearer case for cloud providers.

First up is this week’s announcement from AMD of its Opteron 4000 line of processors for dual socket servers. AMD’s major claim for these processors is that they are better suited to large scale cloud deployments than Intel’s Nehalem family of processors because they are more power efficient. A quick look at the relevant specs does back this claim up, with the Xeon 5600 bottoming out at 40W/processor vs.. 32W for the lowest power version of the Opteron 4000, a 20% improvement for AMD.

However, both SeaMicro and Tilera feel that increasing power efficiency of Opteron and Nehalem class processors is simply putting lipstick on a power hog. Both companies take the position that conventional x86 architectures are inherently inefficient with regard to power consumption for scale-out cloud infrastructures because they are overkill. The problem is compounded by all the supporting logic such as network, storage, graphics, and other components that have to be on the motherboard to create a useful system. Each component adds a few watts to the power consumption, and when you are deploying thousands of servers those watts add up to some pretty hefty power bills.

Though SeaMicro and Tilera are singing from the same hymn book, their designs are very different. SeaMicro has chosen to develop a system around Intel’s Atom processor to maintain x86 compatibility, but that’s as far as the resemblance to conventional x86-based server goes. The system consists of multiple mini-servers in a 10U chassis. Each mini-server consists of an Atom processors, Intel’s standard Atom PCIe chipset, 2GB of non-ECC memory, and SeaMicro’s ASIC that contains all the supporting logic in a single package including high-speed interconnects to network and storage resources.Eight mini-servers are integrated onto a single plug-in card with 64 cards in each 10U chassis.  Using this approach they are able to pack 2048 mini-servers and 4 TB of memory into standard rack with a power footprint in the 8 kW range.

Tilera goes a step further, creating a complete system on a chip that packs 64 processing cores (not x86 compatible), and supporting logic such as networking into a single chip, Using this system, their design partner Quanta is building a skinless 2U design that holds up to eight Tilera chips, supporting 512 cores and 256 GB of memory (4GB DIMMs) in 2U. That corresponds to 10,752 cores and 5.24 TB of memory in a single rack with a power footprint in the 10 kW range.

The challenge for both SeaMicro and Tilera is to gain to mindshare in a very competitive market where system vendors such as Dell are creating servers specifically optimized for large cloud deployments and some of the cloud providers buy servers in such quantities that they can go direct to pacific rim manufacturers and get servers built to their precise specification. I’ll touch on some of the challenges and opportunities for SeaMicro and Tilera in a future blog post.

Posted by: Nik Simpson

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Category: cloud  servers  

Nik Simpson
Research Director
3 years at Gartner
22 years IT industry

Nik Simpson covers a variety of topics focused in three areas: 1. Compute platforms, x86 and RISC platforms 2. Data center infrastructure and design (power, cooling, etc.) 3. Thick, thin and zero client desktop platforms. Read Full Bio

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  1. […] Nik Simpson covers a variety of topics focused in three areas: 1. Compute platforms, x86 and RISC platforms 2. Data center infrastructure and design (power, cooling, etc.) 3. Thick, thin and zero client desktop platforms. Read Full Bio Coverage Areas: ← Energy Efficiency in the Cloud […]

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