Intel's Atom chip finding its way into servers

Super Micro and HP are building Atom chips into servers

Intel's Atom processor is starting to find its way into some types of servers, bringing a new low-power option for end-users but raising a potential business challenge for Intel.

Hewlett-Packard has adopted the Atom for its new MediaSmart LX195 server for entertainment use at home, while a smaller vendor, Super Micro Computer, will use Atom in two storage backup servers announced this week.

Tranquil PC of the U.K. already sells Windows Home Server PCs running on Atom, and Microsoft has been experimenting with Atom chips to build energy-efficient servers for its vast data centers.

Atom chips were designed for use in small, low-cost laptops and desktops - known as netbooks and nettops - for basic tasks like word processing and browsing the Web. They are suitable for those devices in part because they draw little power and don't generate much heat.

Those same qualities can make them attractive for some types of servers. While not as powerful or versatile as traditional server chips, Atom chips don't need a fan for cooling, which saves on energy costs, and they are also less expensive to buy, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst with Insight 64.

"If you're building a server that sells for a couple of hundred dollars, you don't want to have an expensive chip," Brookwood said.

The chips aren't well-suited to general-purpose servers, but they can work well for server appliances -- machines that perform a specific task, like Super Micro's storage appliance -- and for home media servers, Brookwood said.

Those systems are sometimes built today with low-end server or desktop chips. HP used the Atom for its MediaSmart server as an alternative to Intel's Celeron and Advanced Micro Devices' Sempron chips, for example.

The development presents a potential challenge for Intel. Its Atom chips sell for lower prices than most of its desktop and low-end server chips, and carry lower profit margins. If system makers started to use Intel chips more widely in servers, it could eat into Intel's profits.

"If the [product] mix were to change it could create problems for Intel," said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research.

But the threat posed by Atom is not serious today, and a larger shift in usage is unlikely to happen soon, he said. For now, Atom chips are more likely to take share away from Intel's Celeron processors, and the Celeron delivers lower margins even than the Atom, McCarron said.

Atom chips are far less capable than Xeons, Intel's mainstay server chips, which are not seen as threatened today.

But data centers are looking to cut energy costs any way they can, and the wider use of very low-power chips is one possible answer.

Atom chips could potentially be grouped together in racks to perform low-end server functions, said Dan Olds, principal analyst with Gabriel Consulting Group.

That's an idea Microsoft has been toying with. Its research group built an experimental server using 50 Atom-based netbook boards, according to a video it posted on YouTube.

Since the Atom was designed primarily for netbooks, Intel was surprised to see companies experimenting with it in the server arena, said Bill Calder, an Intel spokesman.

The chip is intended mainly for portable and embedded devices, but Intel has been talking to its customers about other possible uses, he said.

Intel's aren't the only netbook chips finding their way into servers. Last week, Via introduced its first server product based on its Nano netbook chip, a motherboard for multimedia servers.

"We are seeing a growing level of interest in the Via Nano for low-power server applications," Richard Brown, Via's vice president of international marketing, said via e-mail.

Via is talking to server makers and system designers about using Nano in rack servers and media servers, where its older C7 netbook chip is already used today.

The Nano has a few features found in traditional server chips that make it attractive for servers, including 64-bit and virtualization support, Brown said.

HP hasn't announced a release date for the MediaSmart LX195, though it is available from online retailers like Newegg.

Priced at US$399, it includes an Atom N230 chip, 1GB of RAM and a 640GB hard drive.

Super Micro's SuperServer 5015A-L and SuperServer 5015A-H appliances can serve as print or e-mail servers as well as a backup storage device, or be "cost-effective home or office workstations," wrote Michael Kalodrich, a Super Micro spokesman, in an e-mail.

Pricing starts at around $200 and the appliances are available worldwide through partners, Kalodrich said.

They will use either the single-core Atom N230 chip, which draws 4 watts of power, or the dual-core Atom N230, which draws 8 watts of power. The chips run at clock speeds of 1.6GHz.

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