SeaMicro's Secret Server Changes Computing Economics

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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