SeaMicro's Low-power Server Finally Launches

UPDATED: SeaMicro, the Santa Clara, Calif.-based startup building a low-power server using Atom chips and its own specially designed silicon to manage the networking, has finally unveiled its hardware, and it’s pretty darn impressive. The startup, which has raised $25 million from venture firms such as Khosla Ventures, Draper Fisher Jurvetson and Crosslink Capital, has made a bet that companies from Facebook to Amazon would be better off using its sever, which consumes one-fourth of the power of a regular server but packs more than 2,000 CPU cores into the $139,000 box.

We offered up some details on SeaMicro in January that we had gleaned from various sources, including a patent filing, but SeaMicro CEO Andrew Feldman has formally launched the company and sent us all the information. Here’s what SeaMicro has done with its box: popped 512 x 1.6 GHz Intel x86 CPUs on a rack, which equates to 2,048 CPUs per rack with 1 Terabyte of DRAM, a 1.28 Terabit networking fabric and up to 64 1-Gigabit Ethernet ports, or 16 10GigE ports. Customers can add up to 64 solid-state drives for storage and the whole box takes up 10 rack units and consumes less than 2 kilowatts of power.

At its heart, SeaMicro has recognized that performance isn’t what much of today’s computing tasks require. Jobs like serving up a web page or even grabbing a photo don’t need gigahertz, they just need to deliver results quickly as part of a highly redundant cluster of servers without gulping power. 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. To address those concerns, SeaMicro designed a server with lower-power CPUs, a lot of memory and a specialty chip to handle the networking and communications among the thousands of cores. SeaMicro’s entire server can fit on a credit card and eight of them fit on a single motherboard. That’s dense.

SeaMicro hopes sell to webscale companies (Feldman won’t disclose any customers yet), but is also aiming at the cloud computing market. Because SeaMicro can shove the equivalent of eight servers on a board, each 1.6 GHz Intel Atom chip could act as its own not-actually-virtual machine. Virtualization arose as a way to boost server utilization rates on machines running faster processors. By using a slower processor, Feldman says that for some jobs, SeaMicro’s servers wouldn’t need to be virtualized.

That’s exciting for companies that are concerned about sharing VMs with other companies in a multitenant environment. Feldman says that using the SeaMicro box, cloud operators can offer guarantees about performance, bandwidth between chips and more security. Companies could also virtualize the SeaMicro gear, but then they would lose the ability to guarantee some service levels and security.

SeaMicro’s machines take the idea of stripping out unnecessary hardware from servers that companies like Google have pioneered (and companies like Rackable (now SGI) and Dell have capitalized on) and attempted to re-architect the machines that provide the computing behind an increasing number of websites people visit on a daily basis. Other companies such as Cisco (scsco), Smooth Stone and even ARM are hoping to do the same thing (SeaMicro’s servers can run on ARM-based chips but would then lose the software advantage and some power efficiencies). However, the task of switching from millions of commodity servers over to a newly built box will take time and perseverance.

Now that SeaMicro has finally shown off its goods, I want to know who’s using them. Depending on the customers and what they’re running on them, SeaMicro’s boxes could change the economics of computing and help Intel stay ahead of the threat posed by ARM-based chips inside servers. I’m hoping that SeaMicro’s CTO Gary Lauterbach will drop some hints and insights at my “What Comes After the Blade? Architectures for the Cloud” panel at our Structure 2010 next week in San Francisco.

UPDATE: Looks like James Hamilton, a real infrastructure guru who pioneered Microsoft’s cloud data center strategy and is now a VP and Distinguished Engineer at Amazon, is excited about SeaMicro and the direction its taking with its hardware. Hamilton is exactly the kind of person SeaMicro needs to impress, and his post validates the need for startups like SeaMicro that want to re-architect the server.

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