Don’t call it a wimpy node: SeaMicro rethinks the server for webscale

SeaMicro crams a whole server on a motherboard.

SeaMicro, the startup that has built a business in the low-power microserver market, said it has now integrated Intel’s workhorse Xeon chip inside its boxes. SeaMicro, which crams hundreds of Intel’s low-power Atom-based chips inside its specialty servers for smaller workloads, has gradually proven to Intel and the rest of the market how strong the demand is for low-power architectures. Intel eventually designed a specialty Atom chip just for SeaMicro that gave it the capabilities that data center customers were looking for. Today it goes further.

Tuesday’s announcement puts a traditional Xeon architecture chip inside SeaMicro’s boxes, and in doing so has remade the traditional server in SeaMicro’s vision. SeaMicro has whittled down a server into three component chips — the CPU, memory and SeaMicro’s proprietary ASIC that helps the hundreds of chips inside the box communicate. What’s notable here is how quickly and how powerfully web scale data center operators have turned the tables on the server and chip industry, which had long been dominated by the vendors delivering innovation at their pace.

But now the density, power and performance demands of companies like Facebook, Google and others are driving vendors in the chip and server industry to react. And so far, SeaMicro has reacted more quickly than the larger vendors — delivering four different iterations of its server in response to market demand in 18 months. Intel’s willingness to listen to and learn from SeaMicro, and its gradual realization that the microserver market was worth paying attention to, is also a sign of change in the market.

For a sense of what this announcement means, Andrew Feldman, the CEO of SeaMicro, explained that a current SeaMicro server could replace 500 machines from five years ago and run at 96 percent of the power. For today’s servers, they deliver 3x the density at half the power– a stat Feldman repeated several times. This delivers the power savings, density and performance to not only some of the work performed in a data center, but all of the work in the data center.

These boxes will support database, application and web servers, and will help deal with the huge power demands of web scale data centers. And Feldman makes clear that the architecture of these boxes and the SeaMicro chip inside that manages the bandwidth inside the box, is flexible. Today it supports Atom and Xeon chips, but tomorrow it could support a completely different CPU architecture such as that offered by Tilera or even ARM-based chips if the demand is there.

So far, Mozilla is relying on SeaMicro for its next generation servers and the federal government is also excited about them. Since we’re now entering the age of the 100 megawatt data center (a single megawatt can power about 800 homes) in buildings the size of football fields, efforts to reduce both power consumption and density are essential to keeping our web addiction sated.