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Server catfight! Intel disses AMD’s SeaMicro buy

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Look, Ma! Six servers on a board.

Intel and AMD are at it again. Intel could have bought SeaMicro, the energy-efficient server vendor that recently got snapped up by AMD, but it decided to pass, said Diane Bryant, vice president and general manager of Intel’s Datacenter and Connected Systems Group, during a press briefing for Intel’s new Xeon E5 for servers in San Francisco today.

“We were not impressed, and declined” to purchase SeaMicro or license its technology, she said. Bryant added, “There are few people they didn’t come to and shop their solution to.”

The comments probably need to be taken with a grain of salt. SeaMicro, after all, was until recently one of Intel’s biggest fans in the emerging world of microservers. SeaMicro specializes in energy-efficient servers and its first web server was able to squeeze 256 Intel Atom processors, a chip designed for phones, into a small box.

“Power and space are over 75 percent of your operating expense,” CEO Andrew Feldman told me last year. “We’ve removed 90 percent of the components.”

The secret ingredient in SeaMicro’s products is a custom-designed networking chip that, in sufficient numbers inside a server, creates a three-dimensional web connecting all of the processors that dramatically speeds up data flow. Rather than connect them in a point-to-point fashion, the networking chips are linked in redundant, torus-shaped loops. (A torus looks like a rubber band or those rings that make up Bib the Michelin Man.)

SeaMicro's SM10000-64 server

SeaMicro then came out with servers containing 512 Atom processors. SeaMicro could have built its servers with chips based on ARM designs, but Feldman figured, why buck convention: corporate buyers like the X86 chips produced by Intel.

SeaMicro this year then went further into Intel-land with its own Xeon box.

“Datacenter operators are looking for compelling Intel-based solutions that solve their power, space and bandwidth problems,” said Kirk Skaugen, Corporate Vice President and General Manager of Intel’s Datacenter and Connected Systems Group, in a prepared statement on January 31. “SeaMicro’s systems—based on its unique fabric—are now able to deliver even greater efficiencies across micro server applications that benefit from the Intel Xeon processor E3 family’s energy efficiency to address a broader range of scale out datacenter applications.  These benefits are available today to customers around the world.”

So what could have soured the relationship between the end of January and now? Maybe it was AMD’s purchase of SeaMicro less than two weeks ago.

Overall, AMD’s purchase seems somewhat intelligent. Latency remains one of the chief bottlenecks in server performance, and SeaMicro has come up with what seems like a fairly elegant solution. AMD also understands these issues: the success it enjoyed with Opteron largely revolved around reducing latency.

Intel, of course, is not standing still. One of the prominent features of the E5 chip released today is that it integrates networking silicon into the processor itself. Integration reduces latency by 30 percent, Bryant said.  The new chip also supports PCI Express 3.0 for faster communication between the processor and other components.

But don’t expect them to be touting a three-dimensional torus again anytime soon.

2 Responses to “Server catfight! Intel disses AMD’s SeaMicro buy”

  1. Roland

    SeaMicro would have been lost in some dark corner of Intel’s enormous business. AMD can’t compete with Intel in MIPS/chip, but it now has a chance at MIPS/$ and MIPS/watt, which is what will matter most.

  2. Kent Cartwright

    It will be interesting to see what MIB variables are included in the AMD vs. Intel for monitoring of the performance of the data flow between processors. These KPI’s grouped by server as well as the PCI Express 3.0 metrics would be critical to overall application delivery.