[Beowulf] SeaMicro drops another Atom bomb on the server market

Eugen Leitl eugen at leitl.org
Mon Feb 28 03:35:39 PST 2011

(not commodity, but still interesting)


SeaMicro drops another Atom bomb on the server market

February 27, 2011 | Dean Takahashi

Back in June, server startup SeaMicro dropped its Atom bomb on the server
market, launching an extremely energy-efficient server using Intel’s Atom
microprocessors. That enabled SeaMicro to get customers who delivered web
pages to tens of millions of internet users across four continents. Now
SeaMicro is dropping another Atom bomb.

The Santa Clara, Calif.-based company is announcing a second generation of
servers today that use a new 64-bit Atom microprocessor from Intel, improving
the amount of computing power that SeaMicro’s servers can use per watt of
power consumed.

“The response has been extraordinary,” said Andrew Feldman (pictured at top),
chief executive of SeaMicro. “The sucking sound in the market is
unbelievable. Everybody wants low-power computing.”

As we wrote last year, SeaMicro found a way to turn the server industry on
its head. Computer makers were once obsessed with building servers that had
as many cores, or brains, as possible. But those microprocessors used a lot
of electricity, throwing off a lot of heat in a confined space and consuming
so much power that the electricity bill became bigger than the cost of the

So SeaMicro created the SM10000, with a tiny server board that was two inches
by three inches (pictured). Using just one power efficient Atom chip set,
SeaMicro could jam eight servers in a 5-inch by 11-inch circuit board. It put
64 of those circuit boards into 10 slots in a rack chassis. It could
therefore put 512 Atom processors in a space that was a quarter of the size
of a normal server rack. And it used a quarter of the power, weighed a third
of the equipment it replaced, and cost a lot less at $130,000 per machine.
SeaMicro started shipping the SM10000 in August and it has sold a lot of the
systems to customers including Skype, Mozilla, Rogers Communications,
Oakridge National Laboratories, France Telecom and China Netcom Broadband.
Those companies are using the servers in internet data centers where serving
large volumes of web pages to lots of users is the task at hand.

That’s pretty stunning execution for a hardware startup, considering that
most enterprises are shy about using small companies and prefer to work with
established vendors. But those customers got tired of using the computing
equivalent of a space shuttle to go shopping at the grocery store.

SeaMicro also attacked the power consumption in the rest of the system, which
accounts for about two-thirds of the power consumed by a server. The company
did so with a very clever trick known as virtualization.

Today, virtualization is used with servers. It is a layer of software that
rests between an application and the servers that it runs on. If an
application needs only two servers, the virtualization software finds two
available servers to run the application. If the application gets busy and
needs 10 servers, the virtualization software finds 10 available servers to
do the job. The application is no longer tied to specific servers; the
virtualization software frees up the overall system and gets more utilization
out of the available servers, as needed to run applications.

SeaMicro did the same thing, but it applied the concept of virtualization to
the  inside of a server. Feldman designed custom chips that could take the
tasks that were handled by everything beyond the Intel microprocessor and its
chip set. The custom chips virtualize all of those other components so that
it finds the resource when it’s needed. It essentially tricks the
microprocessor into thinking that the rest of the system is there when it
needs it.

SeaMicro virtualized a lot of functions that took up a lot of space inside
each server in a rack. It also did the same with functions such as storage,
networking, server management and load balancing. Full told, SeaMicro
eliminates 90 percent of the components from a system board. SeaMicro calls
this CPU/IO virtualization. With it, SeaMicro shrinks the size of the system
board from a pizza box to the size of a credit card.

By boiling down the rest of the system into a couple of chips, SeaMicro can
get rid of a lot of the components in a system, thereby getting rid of space,
cost, and power consumption.

Feldman acknowledges there were some roadblocks for customers who wanted to
buy the first-generation servers. Since the Atom chips were 32-bit
processors, the biggest potential customers couldn’t buy the SeaMicro
technology because they needed 64-bit processing.

Also, the 32-bit processors could only address as much as 2 gigabytes of main
memory at any given time. That was too small for companies with the largest
databases. Now, with the new 64-bit dual-core Intel Atom n570 coming soon,
SeaMicro can now build 64-bit servers with 4 gigabytes of main memory per

Feldman says SeaMicro’s new SM10000-64 rack server can now lower its power
consumption per machine as much as 15 percent to 20 percent with the new Atom
chips, which support virtualization technology. SeaMicro kept the same
10-slot rack that it used before, but now it has 256 dual-core chips in it
with a total of 512 cores, rather than the 512 single-core chips. The machine
is more powerful and uses less power.

Customers who spend about $4 million on SeaMicro equipment can wind up saving
about $16 million in lower computing and power costs.

SeaMicro has about 75 employees now and is adding about one a week. It has
raised more than $40 million. It also got a $9.3 million grant from the
Department of Energy. Feldman says the company is profitable and is not
looking for a new round of funding.

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