Microservers: New Kids On The Block

"Right now the bloom is on the hyperscale market, but if you read the tea leaves what we are seeing is a pivot to microservers," said Andrew Feldman, general manager and corporate vice president at Advanced Micro Devices, Sunnyvale, Calif. As server, network and storage infrastructure technologies evolve, he said, microservers are better suited to execute an increasingly common number of lightweight workloads, such as cold storage and low-end dedicated hosting.

The microserver trend is so new that just two years ago market-research firm IDC had no formal definition for it. Today, microservers are described as servers that use multiple mobile low-power processors and take up less space, allowing companies to fit more nodes into a single data farm -- thereby reducing cooling costs.

Microservers are most popular in small and midsize businesses, Feldman said, but they are gaining traction in the enterprise. He suspects that large companies such as Facebook and Google are turning to microservers for simple tasks such as storing photos taken on smartphones.

Today, chip makers AMD and Intel each have positioned its low-power chips for the nascent server market. AMD recently unveiled new versions of its Opteron chip that can draw as little as 9 watts. Intel, Santa Ana, Calif., launched a second-generation family of Atom-based Avoton system-on-chip processors for microservers.

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U.K. chip designer ARM has designed its 32-bit Cortex-A9 Calxeda EnergyCore boards for use in Hewlett-Packard's microserver test platform in its Project Moonshot initiative. ARM said that later this year AppliedMicro is slated to release the X-Gene platform -- a 64-bit ARM-based micro server board.

Top-tier server makers IBM, HP and Dell also see opportunity rolling out new servers aimed at the microserver market.

HP delivered its first ProLiant Moonshot server powered by Intel's Atom S1200 Centerton chip earlier this year. HP said it can fit 1,800 Moonshot servers into a single rack and will use as much as 89 percent less power than its ProLiant DL380 server.

According to market researchers at MarketsandMarkets, microservers now account for 2.3 percent of the market. However, in the next five years they are expected to reach 25 percent to 30 percent of the global server market, worth an estimated $26.5 billion by 2018, according to the research firm.

"Traditional server maker innovation just wasn't cutting it. Cloud companies got to point where they didn't need feature-rich servers running on power-hungry Xeon processors. They needed systems to tackle simple cloud applications at lower cost and with lower power consumption," Feldman said.

To take advantage of the trend, AMD bought microserver pioneer SeaMicro for $334 million. The company, which Feldman founded, originally developed microservers based on Intel's Atom chips. Today, AMD offers a number of microservers based on new versions of its Opteron chip line.

While microservers are growing in market share, they have technical limits and compatibility issues. Traditional higher-powered servers will still account for the majority of server sales because they can't be easily replaced by microservers.

Google's senior vice president of operations, Urs Holzle, pointed out in a technical paper that while microservers might be adequate for simple tasks today, in a heartbeat they may be painfully inadequate. "Slower but energy efficient 'wimpy' cores only win for general workloads," Holzle wrote.

If better performance is needed from microservers, software will have to be rewritten to distribute workloads between microservers. Then, Holzle wrote, the microserver cost savings will be canceled out by new runtime expenses that will require companies to rewrite code (boosting software development cost) and work microservers harder (boosting energy costs).