Intel rolls out six-watt Atom chip for cloud servers

The new Centerton 64-bit system-on-a-chip family is aimed at lightweight, scale-out Web apps

Intel today took the wraps off its new Atom-based S1200 processor family (aka Centerton), a trio of 64-bit SoCs (systems on chips) that run on a mere six watts of power. The S1200 is clearly groomed for the legions of low-power microservers increasingly taking up residence in cloud-computing farms across the globe, as well as energy-efficient storage and networking gear.

The chips are aimed at a specific processing tasks: lightweight, scale-out Web apps that don't require heavy processing on the back end. These babies are all about high density, unlike the Intel Xeon line, which is groomed for compute-intensive apps that require a high rate of transactions.

"If you want the maximum possible throughput per node or per rack, Xeon delivers twice as much compared to Atom," said Chris Feltham, Intel EMEA product manager. "If you want density, Atom will give more than five times [capacity].... If your business model is based around the number of dedicated servers -- hosting or revenue per tweet -- [having] the maximum number of nodes is going to interest you."

The Atom S1200 chips, which feature speeds ranging from 1.6GHz to 2.0GHz, include two physical cores and a total of four threads, all enabled with Intel's Hyper-Threading Technology. The chip also includes 64-bit support, a memory controller supporting up to 8GB of DDR3 memory, Intel's Virtualization Technologies, eight lanes of PCI Express 2.0, Error-Correcting Code support for higher reliability, and other I/O interfaces integrated from Intel chip sets. According to Intel, they're compatible with existing x86 software.

The fact that Intel has managed to crank out a six-watt chip is quite noteworthy, demonstrating that green traits like low energy consumption have shifted from a novelty to a must-have feature. In comparison, the thermal design power for Intel's Xeon processors in 2006 was 40 watts; this year, the company has reduced the draw to 17 watts. Rivals ARM and AMD have similarly strived to slash the energy draw of their server chips.

Intel also took the opportunity to boast that major server players like Dell, HP, and Supermicro are already embracing the S1200 for microserver designs and other gear.

Floundering AMD pre-emptively jumped on Intel's announcement with a PR blast to journalists to deride Intel's latest foray into the microserver space -- and to take to jabs at the company's struggles in the mobile market.

"In a radical about-face, Intel tomorrow is planning to announce a new Atom-based processor for microservers. Intel is finally acknowledging the microserver party, although we do wonder if it's 'too little, too late?'" read the message.

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