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Summary:

We offer up the details on SeaMicro, a stealthy server company that today scored $9.3 million from the Department of Energy as part of a program encouraging data center efficiency. The company is one of two building specialty hardware to meet the demands of web comapnies.

SeaMicro, a stealthy server company based in Santa Clara, Calif., today scored $9.3 million from the Department of Energy as part of a program to encourage data center efficiency. It’s built a box that contains 512 Atom CPUs, a petabyte of storage, and costs less than $100,000, which it hopes to use to exploit the growing gap in computing workloads that the major server and chip vendors have ignored.

From low-power mobile chips to incredibly fast, high-performance silicon, what one executive at Dell called “the dynamic range” of computing has widened. But right now the industry only provides computer users with chips congregated at each end, and nothing for users in between.

For web-based companies such as Yahoo, Facebook, and others serving up fairly simple web pages and storing relatively tiny files of user information, the incredible horsepower offered by today’s high-end chips is too much. It’s the equivalent of using a nuclear bomb to take out a car. And the disparity between the performance needs and the performance offered means a lot of power is wasted. Conversely, low-power mobile chips aren’t enough. So web companies, like Goldilocks, need a server that’s just right.

Speaking at our Structure 09 conference last year, Facebook VP of Technical Operations Jonathan Heiliger took the hardware guys to task for designing chips and boxes that don’t adequately meet the needs of companies like his, which don’t need as much horsepower from their processors.

SeaMicro isn’t alone in attacking this problem; another is Austin, Texas-based Smooth Stone, which is using ARM-based chips. But both of these firms are going against what is currently the biggest trend in corporate data centers: commodity servers. Such boxes aren’t simply a collection of low-power chips — they have to be networked from inside in order to deliver optimal performance for the lowest power consumption, which is really what SeaMicro and Smooth Stone are selling. The question is, will web companies buy it?

Image courtesy of Flickr user Torkildr.

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  1. SeaMicro: A Server Maker That Could Change the Game of Computing Power Wednesday, January 6, 2010

    [...] broadband infrastructure guru Stacey Higginbotham, GigaOM Senior Writer, to give us an explanation. Stacey says SeaMicro has built a box that contains 512 Atom CPUs, a petabyte of storage, and costs less than $100,000. [...]

  2. Companies with huge data centers can save a ton of money on direct power costs and well as cooling costs. There is a lot of incentive to be more efficient…

  3. was wandering how efficient are atom processors when talking about energy/speed ratio

    considering to atom processor pretty low speed there is way for efficient processing

  4. Elastra Makes Its Cloud Even Greener – GigaOM Tuesday, January 12, 2010

    [...] server virtualization and efficient hardware reduce the total cost of maintaining the status quo, this new breed of software solutions shaves [...]

  5. I beg to differ with the third-paragraph stating that “For companies such as Yahoo, Facebook, and others serving up fairly simple web pages and storing relatively tiny files of user information, the incredible horsepower offered by today’s high-end chips is too much.” While these pages may appear fairly simple it can take a lot of work to generate them (and keep them updated, in the case of AJAX/Comet driven pages). I would be surprised if any company operating at that scale didn’t fully saturate their hardware.

    Also, if I read the linked article correctly, Jonathan Heiliger is complaining that the chip makers are promising “atomic bombs” but Facebook isn’t seeing the mushroom cloud when they put them to the test.

    I’m a software guy, so maybe my understanding is incorrect in this issue – but I know I haven’t found myself wishing for chip with performance somewhere between an ARM and Xeon. I’ll take the Xeon any day. A low-cost medium performance processor may be valuable to people offering dedicated hosting, who can then provide/guarantee a dedicated processor at a more reasonable cost.

  6. I also doubt there is a huge market for low-speed server CPUs. There is some overhead involved with using many slow CPUs instead of a few fast ones, namely power supply and I/O. You wouldn’t believe how I/O heavy sites such as Facebook really are, so you need an architecture with lots of memory bandwidth. Can the atom really shine here?
    Besides, you can always use virtualization to avoid idle hardware.

  7. Web’s Buildout Boosting Server Chip Demand – GigaOM Tuesday, March 9, 2010

    [...] ARM-based processors are looking to take on Intel and AMD in the server chip business and change the economics of the server business. But for now Intel and AMD can continue to party, thanks to demand for servers from guys like [...]

  8. Web’s Buildout Boosting Server Chip Demand | AniChaos.com Tuesday, March 9, 2010

    [...] ARM-based processors are looking to take on Intel and AMD in the server chip business and change the economics of the server business. But for now Intel and AMD can continue to party, thanks to demand for servers from guys like [...]

  9. Smooth-Stone Bets ARM Will Invade the Data Center Friday, April 9, 2010

    [...] bigger challenge is getting all of the cores to work together efficiently, a problem that another low-power systems company, SeaMicro, likely is solving as well with a box that contains 512 Atom chips. When I asked Evans if [...]

  10. Microsoft Speeds Up Its Data Center With Light and Mirrors Tuesday, April 20, 2010

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