Microsoft has asked Intel to develop a 16-core version of its low-power Atom chip for use in servers, part of a wider effort to reduce power consumption in its massive data centers, a Microsoft executive said Thursday.
There's a "huge opportunity" to improve energy efficiency by using servers based on small, low-power chip designs such as Intel's Atom and Advanced Micro Devices' Bobcat, said Dileep Bhandarkar, a distinguished engineer with Microsoft's Global Foundation Services, which runs the company's data centers.
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The small chips use little power because they were designed for use in mobile computers such as netbooks. But they are also more energy-efficient for some server workloads than processors like Intel's powerful Xeon chips, Bhandarkar said in a speech at The Linley Group Data Center Conference in Silicon Valley.
Microsoft's data centers power mostly Web-centric applications like Bing, Hotmail and Windows Live Messenger, as well as hosted versions of business applications such as Sharepoint and Exchange.
It's no secret that Microsoft and other big data-center operators are experimenting with small, low-power chips. Vendors such as Dell are already selling servers based on Via's Nano processor. Bhandarkar's comments show Microsoft's keen interest in alternative designs and that it has made some specific requests to Intel and AMD.
The processors should also use a more integrated, system-on-chip design, he said. "When you look at these tiny cores, another way of making them work in a very efficient way is [not to] surround them with a whole bunch of south bridges and network controllers. ... Essentially, the tiny cores and systems-on-chip should go together."
Microsoft has enough buying power to pressure vendors into designing equipment that meets its specifications, and Intel is likely to release an Atom chip for servers eventually, said Linley Gwennap, founder and principal analyst at The Linley Group.
"I think Intel is going to have to do it at some point. We're seeing more of the ARM guys going after the server market and just to compete on power performance per watt, Intel is going to have to rely on the Atom CPU," he said.
Bhandarkar said there may be a role at Microsoft for ARM-based servers, but he also said the architecture faces significant hurdles. "If ARM can show us enough value over an x86 solution we might consider that," he said. But there has to be a clear performance benefit.
"Instruction-set transitions are extremely painful," Bhandarkar said. "As a general rule of thumb, you have to have a sustainable improvement per dollar per watt of at least 2x -- some would say 5x -- but it's at least 2x" to make it worthwhile.
"For some apps where you don't have that dependency the number could be smaller," he said. "ARM's an interesting thing to look at and, if nothing else, if it lights a fire under Intel and AMD to deliver more effective x86 solutions, I'm happy."
Microsoft said recently it would port Windows to ARM processors for use in mobile devices such as tablet computers. But that's different from PCs and servers, Bhandarkar argued, which are expected to run a wide range of existing software.
ARM, which is developing a more powerful chip design for servers and switches, is more optimistic. It notes that some servers need to run only a handful of programs, such as the Lamp stack (Linux, Apache, the MySQL database and PHP).