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Dell Inc. (DELL) this month plans to introduce a new micro server that aims to provide nearly double the computing power over the prior generation, thanks to a new higher-performing, more energy-efficient chip from Intel Corp. (INTC).
Micro servers are computer hardware systems designed to save space and energy, and are becoming an increasingly competitive market. While low power consumption is a key selling point, it often comes with a tradeoff--lower performance.
The new Dell servers, which will be available May 22 and have a starting price of about $12,200, will be the first to use Intel Xeon processors manufactured at 22 nanometers, or billionths of a meter. Such chips are a generation ahead of Intel's main server processors--released earlier this year--in terms of process technology. And they're the first Xeon processors to draw less than 20 watts of power.
"Going to a sub-20 watt part certainly is a pretty attractive reason to stay on Xeon, in addition to all the performance features," said Drew Schulke, Dell's director of data center solutions platform marketing.
Since Dell and Intel started working together on micro servers about three years ago, Intel has achieved a five-fold improvement in performance per watt, said Jason Waxman, general manager of Intel's cloud infrastructure group. The new Xeon chips draw 17 watts of power, down from 20 watts in the previous generation, 30 in 2010 and 45 in 2009.
"It's not too often you have perfect timing where the market is moving to new types of systems and new types of applications, and we're able to deliver that kind of breakthrough using a 22 nanometer product," Waxman said.
Many companies have been experimenting with micro servers, which rely on chips whose hallmark is extremely low power consumption rather than high calculating speed. Because micro servers can pack together many processors in ways that save space and energy, the products are particularly popular among companies that buy servers in huge volumes to run popular consumer websites or crunch a lot of data.
Intel has said the micro server market could represent up to 10% of servers by 2015, up from about 1% to 2% today, according to Waxman. He believes about two-thirds of the micro server market will be addressed by Intel's Xeon chips, while certain applications may be better served by the company's lower power Atom chips that are also used in low-end PCs and mobile devices.
The Xeon product family used in the new Dell machines includes 17-watt and 45-watt chips that boost the server's performance by up to 53% over the prior generation, Dell and Intel said. The chips also allow for a 50% increase in rack density, or the number of servers in a physical space. The faster processor and higher density result in an up to 95% total performance boost, the companies said.
The new micro server from Dell and Intel comes as competition heats up in the sector. Intel rival Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) a couple months ago bought SeaMicro Inc., a micro server maker that was previously a close partner of Intel. SeaMicro, which first made servers using Atom, in March updated its products with Xeon. AMD has said it will continue to use Intel chips in the near term, but the devices will eventually use AMD semiconductors.
And companies making chips based on ARM Holdings PLC (ARMH, ARM.LN) architecture are also targeting the market. ARM chips typically are lower power than those from Intel, making them attractive to companies looking for energy-efficient products. Start-up Calxeda Inc. has partnered with Hewlett-Packard Co. (HPQ) to develop low-power servers using its chips. It plans to begin beta server shipments within the next four weeks and enter volume production in the fourth quarter, said Karl Freund, Calxeda vice president of marketing.
Gartner analyst Sergis Mushell said the new type of server workloads, which are more about streaming data and less about processing, won't require ultra powerful chips from Intel. He estimates about 15% of the current market could be addressed by alternative chip architectures such as those from ARM, though he cautioned not all companies will want to move to different types of processors.
Intel, meanwhile, later this year plans to introduce an Atom chip, dubbed Centerton, that draws only 6 watts of power.
"From our perspective, regardless of how far it goes or how long it takes, [micro servers are] interesting to us," Waxman said.
-By Shara Tibken, Dow Jones Newswires; 212-416-2189; email@example.com