Intel launches its first microserver SoC

By Chris Edwards |  No Comments  |  Posted: December 11, 2012
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The launch of “our first data center-focused SoC” as product manager Chris Feltham described it seems more a stake in the ground for microservers than a product that is going to reshape the data-center market. The overall performance of the Atom 1200, previously known as Centerton, places it as a processor more suited to low-volume web servers and office-grade storage arrays rather than central office-grade versions.

The dual-core Atom S1200 marks a new low for Intel in server-class processor power consumption on an individual basis, the new processor, which is fabricated on the older 32nm process rather than the latest 22nm finFET technology – that will be used by Avoton, due out sometime next year. But benchmarks provided by Intel demonstrated that, in terms of performance per watt, the server-class Atom still lags low-end members of the Xeon family.

The S1200 is based on the same Saltwell core as that used in Atom processors aimed at the mobile tablet market and is based on the company’s 32nm process rather than the 22nm finFET process used in its mainstream products. Running at up to 2GHz, the fastest device in the three-member S1200 family –the S1260 – consumes up to 8.5W, about five times less than the existing, four-core Xeon E3.

Feltham said, thanks to integration and lower individual power consumption, a manufacturer could put five times as many Atom S1200s into a rack than Xeon E3s. Feltham said that web hosts looking to provide dedicated servers to customers, Atom provided a good fit.

“When it comes to revenue to Intel, it’s about the same for both of these racks,” said Feltham. “It really depends on the customer in question what they are trying to achieve as to which approach is better. The choice for performance per watt would still be Xeon,” said Feltham.

In its benchmark, Intel calculated that a rack fitted with 112 Xeon E3s – the maximum possible today in terms of space – would outperform a rack containing 560 Atom S1260s. With a power per node of 60W versus 20W, the Atom-based rack would consume 40 per cent more power.

For memory, Intel has opted to go with the lower-voltage form of DDR3 rather than the LPDDR3 developed for mobile phones. DDR3L offers lower-voltage operation than conventional desktop-grade memory but lacks the advanced sleep modes of LPDDR3. Each S1200 can address up to 8GB of memory in two chips sitting on the same memory channel. As it is intended for servers, the Atom S1200 provides ECC support.

Although it has an onchip PCI Express controller, the S1200 lacks an Ethernet port. “Avoton wil bring Ethernet integrated into the SoC,” said Feltham.

Although the energy efficiency of the Centerton design leaves plenty of room for improvement, given the number of chipmakers converging on this area, designers of data-center hardware can take comfort in knowing it’s an area that is going to get interesting quickly, with ramifications that will spill out into the wider embedded-systems market.

ARM’s partners have yet to launch their own 64bit server-class SoCs and the introduction of ARM’s architecture into this market opens up the possibility of large-scale server users developing their own variants to optimize performance for their own environments and protect sensitive server designs more easily. Intel potentially can support custom designs through its foundry operations but the company still favors the standard product offering, according to Feltham.

“As a general rule, the priority is developing our solutions that we can take to market. It’s a big undertaking for customers to do their own designs,” said Feltham.

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