I’ve been talking about the application low-power, low-cost processors to server workloads for years starting with The Case for Low-Cost, Low-Power Servers. Subsequent articles get into more detail: Microslice Servers, Low-Power Amdahl Blades for Data Intensive Computing, and Successfully Challenging the Server Tax

Single dimensional measures of servers like “performance” without regard to server cost or power dissipation are seriously flawed. The right way to measure server performance is work done per dollar and work done by joule. If you adopt these measures of workload performance, we find that cold storage workload and highly partitionable workloads run very well on low-cost, low-power servers. And we find the converse as well. Database workloads run poorly on these servers (see When Very Low-Power, Low-Cost Servers Don’t Make Sense).

The reasons why scale-up workloads in general and database workload specifically run poorly on low-cost, low-powered servers are fairly obvious. Workloads that don’t scale-out, need bigger single servers to scale (duh). And workloads that are CPU bound tend to run more cost effectively on higher powered nodes. The later isn’t strictly true. Even with scale-out losses, many CPU bound workloads still run efficiently on low-cost, low-powered servers because what is lost on scaling is sometimes more than gained by lower-cost and lower power consumption.

I find the bounds where a technology ceases to work efficiently to be the most interesting area to study for two reasons: 1) these boundaries teach us why current solutions don’t cross the boundary and often gives us clues on how to make the technology apply more broadly, and most important, 2) you really need to know where not to apply a new technology. It is rare that a new technology is a uniform across-the board win. For example, many of the current applications of flash memory make very little economic sense. It’s a wonderful solution for hot I/O-bound workloads where it is far superior to spinning media. But flash is a poor fit for many of the applications where it ends up being applied. You need to know where not to use a technology.

Focusing on the bounds of why low-cost, low-power servers don’t run a far broader class of workloads also teaches us what needs to change to achieve broader applicability. For example, if we ask what if the processor cost and power dissipation was zero, we quickly see, when scaling down processors costs and power, it is what surrounds the processor that begins to dominate. We need to get enough work done on each node to pay for the cost and power of all the surrounding components from northbridge, through memory, networking, power supply, etc. Each node needs to get enough done to pay for the overhead components.

This shows us an interesting future direction: what if servers shared the infrastructure and the “all except the processor” tax was spread over more servers? It turns out this really is a great approach and applying this principle opens up the number of workloads that can be hosted on low-cost, low-power servers. Two examples of this direction are the Dell Fortuna and Rackable CloudRack C2. Both these shared infrastructure servers take a big step in this direction.

SeaMicro Releases Innovative Intel Atom Server

One of the two server startups I’m currently most excited about is SeaMicro. Up until today, they have been in stealth mode and I haven’t been able to discuss what they are building. It’s been killing me. They are targeting the low-cost, low-power server market and they have carefully studied the lessons above and applied the learning deeply. SeaMicro has built a deeply integrated, shared infrastructure, low-cost, low-power server solution with a broader potential market than any I’ve seen so far. They are able to run the Intel x86 instruction set avoiding the adoption friction of using different ISAs and they have integrated a massive number servers very deeply into an incredibly dense package. I continue to point out that rack density for densities sake is a bug not a feature (see Why Blades aren’t the Answer to All Questions) but the SeaMicro server module density is “good density” that reduces cost and increases efficiency. At under 2kw for a 10RU module, it is neither inefficient or challenging from a cooling perspective.

Potential downsides of the SeaMicro approach is that the Intel Atom CPU is not quite as power efficient as some of the ARM-based solutions and it doesn’t currently support ECC memory. However, the SeaMicro design is available now and it is a considerable advancement over what is currently in the market. See You Really do Need ECC Memory in Servers for more detail on why ECC can be important. What SeaMicro has built is actually CPU independent and can integrate other CPUs as other choice become available and the current Intel Atom-based solution will work well for many server workloads. I really like what they have done.

SeaMicro have taken shared infrastructure to a entirely new level in building a 512 server module that takes just 10 RU and dissipates just under 2Kw. Four of these modules will fit in an industry standard rack, consume a reasonable 8kW, and deliver more work done joule, work done per dollar, and more work done per rack than the more standard approaches currently on the market.

The SeaMicro server module is comprised of:

· 512 1.6Ghz Intel Atoms (2048 CPUs/rack)


· 1.28 Tbps networking fabric

· Up to 16x 10Gbps ingress/egress network or up to 64 1Gbps if running 1GigE

· 0 to 64 SATA SSD or HDDs

· Standard x86 instruction set architecture (no recompilation)

· Integrated software load-balancer

· Integrated layer 2 networking switch

· Under 2kW power

The server nodes are built 8 to a board in one of the nicest designs I’ve seen for years:

The SeaMicro 10 RU chassis can be hosted 4 to an industry standard rack:

This is an important hardware advancement and it is great to see the faster pace of innovation sweeping the server world driven by innovative startups like SeaMicro.


James Hamilton

e: jrh@mvdirona.com

w: http://www.mvdirona.com

b: http://blog.mvdirona.com / http://perspectives.mvdirona.com