Microservers are best fit for Internet computing, and they use less energy. This winning combination might make them the next wave of data center servers.

Maintaining a data center can be pretty pricey. While there are a lot of different bills that add up, one of the biggest is the power bill. Power in turn leads to elevated cooling costs (because the harder a server works, the hotter the server gets). For a long time companies have been trying to reconfigure the standard server to reduce power consumption without giving up computing power. One trend that might solve data center power concerns is microservers.

In general, when a company wants to make a server, they try to equip it with the most powerful components to make the server perform as fast as possible. Microservers try a different approach. Instead of fewer, beefier, processors, companies making microservers use a string of less powerful processors to get the speed they need. They call this group of less powerful processors wimpy nodes.

Particularly, these wimpy nodes are believed to serve the needs of Internet computing very well. In addition to a cluster of low-end processors, these servers also use lighter, less energy-demanding memory devices, like flash instead of hard drives. This whole process was developed and presented by Carnegie Mellon University PhD students with their mentor professor. Companies have picked up the torch and have started to run with the idea commercially, particularly, the new start-up SeaMicro.

SeaMicro’s design uses Atom processors (which are usually used in netbooks). Another company that is trying to get in the microserver game uses ARM processors (which are usually used in cell phones). The patent for the design is a server that uses multiple, independent processors, but that shares other resources like storage, networking, and BIOS. SeaMicro even received a grant from the Department of Energy to further its commercial development of a more environmentally conscientious server. Mozilla is buying into the idea as well, and is already using some of SeaMicro’s servers to deliver users faster downloads.

Another ingredient to the SeaMicro secret sauce that allows such fast servers is what the company calls its fabric chip. It specifically handles all the communication between the CPU and the rest of the server components. For example, instead of having a dedicated network card, the fabric chip handles the network card’s responsibilities. No extra hardware means no extra power being consumed. It also means everything can fit on a much smaller motherboard. Some are even as small as a business card.

But enough of just taking the company’s word for it, let’s check out the hard data.

To test their product at Carnegie Mellon University, the researchers set up a metric to measure a conventional server against their new microserver design. They determined that measuring how many queries could be done per joule of energy consumed by the server would be a good way to compare the two configurations against each other. A standard server with a quad-core Intel processor, 2 GB of memory, and solid-state drive completed 52 queries with one joule of energy.

For the first iteration of microserver design that Carnegie Mellon developed, it ran 346 queries with one joule of energy. The paper published with the results of the study found that with newer designs, with Atom processors and SATA flash drives, showed that a microserver could easily complete 1,000 queries on one joule of energy.

One article points out that server fads come and go. Early blade servers tried to use low-end processors, cramped together, but commercially they didn’t go anywhere. The possible difference for microservers is the constantly growing need for Internet-centric data centers might be the key for microserver success where other server fads have not gained popularity.

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