Intel's Avoton server chip comes in 13 varieties

The low-power Atom chip is available in multiple variants to better compete with ARM-based processors

Intel is taking another run at the market for low-power, high-density servers with its new "Avoton" chip, which was launched Wednesday and will do battle with an expected upcoming wave of ARM-based processors.

About 10 vendors showed Avoton systems at an Intel event in San Francisco Wednesday. Some of them will ship later this year. They include a mix of compute, network and "cold storage" servers from Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Quanta and others.

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Avoton refers to a family of chips, called the Atom C2000 line, that's built on Intel's new Silvermont core and manufactured on a 22-nanometer process. Intel says Avoton will provide seven times the performance and six times the performance per watt of its predecessor, Centerton, which came out nine months ago.

There will be 13 versions of Avoton tuned for different applications, including compute, storage, network security and wireless functions. They'll vary in the number of cores, the amount of memory they address, whether they need cooling fans, and other characteristics.

It's a big change from the past, when Intel offered basically the same server chip but at different clock speeds and with different cache sizes. And it reflects increased competition from ARM-based processors, which are being developed by several vendors for different markets.

"We're clearly demonstrating Intel's move from a general-purpose compute provider to selling optimized products that address specific workloads," said Diane Bryant, general manager of Intel's Datacenter and Connected Systems Group.

That need has become greater as vendors such as Calxeda, Marvell and Applied Micro ready ARM-based server chips. Many of the server vendors at Intel's event Wednesday said they'll also offer ARM-based systems in the coming year.

"I wouldn't call [Avoton] a game changer, but it's finally evidence that Intel takes the small-core business seriously," said industry analyst Patrick Moorhead, of Moor Insights & Strategy.

Historically, he said, Intel treated Atom as a poorer cousin to its more expensive Xeon chips, but it now seems to realize that Atom could be essential to its future.

HP said it will offer Avoton in a new version of its Moonshot server that will ship later this year. It will be targeted at front-end Web applications, dedicated hosting services and certain big data workloads, said Gerald Kleyn, director of platform engineering for HP's hyperscale servers.

"The first Moonshot system was really for static Web pages, but this gets into dynamic pages. Clearly with the higher performance you can do more work to deliver content," he said.

The server includes 45 tiny processor boards, or what HP refers to as cartridges, in a chassis that's 4.3 rack units, or about 7.5 inches (19 cm), high. That's the same number of cartridges as the existing Moonshot. But Avoton increases the core count over Centerton from two to eight, and it has two memory controllers, which improves memory bandwidth and allowed HP to attach 32GB of memory with each cartridge, Kleyn said.

Most customers run Linux on Moonshot, but HP plans to support Windows in the future, as well as hypervisors, he said. The primary fabric is Ethernet, and a new cartridge, known as an m300, is routed with up to eight individual Ethernet lanes.

The new Moonshot system will be on sale by the end of the year, Kleyn said. HP wouldn't give the price, but the first Moonshot was listed for $62,000.

HP is working on a new cartridge design that will accommodate four processors, for a total of 180 servers in the Moonshot chassis, Kleyn said.

About 50 Avoton systems are in development altogether, Intel's Bryant said. Most are network servers, with around a dozen compute servers and a dozen "cold storage" systems.

Dell sees cold storage as a big opportunity for Avoton. It refers to storage that's accessed only rarely, but that needs to be available fairly quickly when it is required. The example most often cited is photos uploaded to Facebook.

Low-power processors such as Avoton are ideal for such workloads, because they can power down almost completely but have enough performance to serve up data when it's required, said Drew Schulke, global marketing director for Dell's data center solutions business.

He showed a system from Dell that's one rack-unit high and was running 48TB of storage off of a single Avoton processor.

Social networking sites are the tip of the spear for cold storage, but it may be relevant for other businesses too, Schulke said. A bank could use it to let customers view images of checks that were scanned several years ago, for instance.

Taiwan's Wiwynn was also showing an Avoton-based cold storage system. The fact that Avoton is still x86 is useful, because it makes it easy for customers to move software from higher-level storage tiers down to cold storage, said Paul Ju, a senior vice president with Wiwynn.

Still, like Dell and some of the other vendors here, Wiwynn is also developing storage systems with ARM-based processors, Ju said.

James Niccolai covers data centers and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow James on Twitter at @jniccolai. James's e-mail address is james_niccolai@idg.com

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