Microservers boost server power, flexibility
Inexpensive microservers could be a fix for the cloud
Though server virtualization is by far the preferred method for dealing with the data center need for high-density server processing power, another based on small, very low-power, single-processor servers has been gaining attention.
The biggest splash came in April 2011 when Gio Coglitore, director of Facebook labs, told the audience at an Intel press briefing that the fast-growing social media company would likely eschew server virtualization and opt to use inexpensive microservers to support its needs.
The main reason was nervousness about committing to virtual servers that nevertheless are contained within physical machines. If just one of those machines went down, it could seriously degrade Facebook’s performance, something the company wouldn’t want given the more than 750 million active users Facebook now claims.
Facebook instead wants to be able to balance its load more evenly and, preferably, not degrade the user experience if a server does go down.
“As you start to virtualize, the importance of that individual server is greatly enhanced,” Coglitore said. “And when you have that at scale, it becomes very difficult.”
Using microservers in data centers gets around that problem. They are circuit boards that carry a low-watt processor such as an Intel Atom chip, along with some RAM, a little storage and networking interconnects. Each of these boards represents one software-based virtual server.
“Basically, it’s all about densely populating data centers,” said Reuben Miller, a senior research analyst at IDC's Worldwide Enterprise Server Group. “If you used microservers with Intel Atom processors in a 42U rack enclosure, you’re still getting the same output as with regular servers but using less power and real estate.”
They’re not a cure-all, of course. As Miller points out, microservers are not designed to handle heavy workload situations. So finance companies running mission-critical workloads would not use microservers in their data centers, and the same applies for government agencies that also need to run high-demand applications.
But for those organizations that need servers for smaller transactions such as Web log-ons or to check e-mail — or, as with Web hosting companies, need to provide each user with their own cheap machine — microservers work just fine.
Those inexpensive hosting duties are what microprocessors were originally designed for just a few years ago. Whether or not they make a splash in the general enterprise data center may depend on whether they can overcome the virtualization craze that is now sweeping both government and private organizations. Cloud computing is something that many observers think could provide an impetus, depending on how that develops.
Organizations that have a mix of mundane and mission-critical applications could perfectly well use microservers for part of their needs, Miller believes, though security could prove an issue.
“Even with mundane operations, there’s a certain level of security needed,” he said. “If you need more processor power for that security, then using microservers could lead to problems, and obviously speed cannot be an issue with the applications microservers host.”
One advantage users of microservers will have over the next few years is a fast-developing marketplace, with chip manufacturers targeting microservers for technology innovation. Microserver users should be able to take advantage of that quickly, given how inexpensive it will be to switch out one server for another.
Intel, which expects microservers could make up as much as 10 percent of the total server market by 2015, said earlier this year that it plans to develop microserver Atom chips that will consume as little as 10 watts by 2012. It also expects to offer more powerful Xeon server chips, which now run at either 45 or 30 watts, that will take up as little as 20 watts.
Systems makers such as Dell and SeaMicro have already announced microserver products that use Intel Atom processors. The CEO of ARM Ltd., which makes low-power processors for many laptops and mobile devices, said his company intends to challenge Intel for leadership of the microserver processor market by 2014.
As more processor and systems vendors enter the market, that will only help it grow, said Miller. He expects it to expand by 5 to 10 percent over each of the next two years and then hit “exponential growth” as new technologies, such as multicore processors, are introduced.