Rise of the Microserver
Cloud services are all well and good, but often companies need to keep control of their data and operations in-house. Traditionally that has meant expensive servers burning lots of power and needing plentiful cooling. But those days may be changing. There are new server designs coming that make big breaks with the past, using banks of mobile chips to seriously reduce both capital costs and operating expenses.
The new machines are called microservers, and they're being developed by some of the macro names in computing. HP has a project called Redstone, while Dell is developing a product nicknamed Copper. In addition, there are some newer companies--Boston in the U.K. or Calxeda near Austin--that currently make microservers using ARM processors.
What They Can Do
Chip company AMD this year bought SeaMicro, which had technology for building servers out of large numbers of Intel's low-power Atom chips. In fact, Intel recently launched a new Atom line designed specifically for microservers. And such companies as Google, Facebook, and Amazon are all experimenting with using such low-power servers, according the Reuters article linked above:
[Facebook vice-president of hardware design and supply chain Frank] Frankovsky said "wimpy" low-power chips in some cases can do the same work as Intel's "brawny" Xeon chips while consuming half or a third as much power. "How much useful work can you get done per watt per dollar? That's the only metric that matters," Frankovsky said.
According to estimates by market research firm Gartner, powering and cooling a single average x86 server tops $400 a year. Moving to microservers can cut the cost by a third to a half.
That might be a small amount if you're running one, two, or three servers. But as a company expands, the number of servers can increase greatly, particularly for technology-based businesses. Additionally, even if you were to use hosted or cloud-based services, a provider that used microservers might be able to offer significantly lower costs than one using more traditional designs.
What They're Good For
Microservers aren't necessarily suited for every possible use. But they excel at some common ones. Intel describes the uses as "[d]istributed, highly parallel workloads with relatively low compute requirements per node." You won't run virtualized CAD programs for engineering, but Web servers are a fine application for the technology.
Chances are that you won't move your current computing to a microserver tomorrow. But keeping atop technology trends is always a smart move. And this will be an important one to watch over the next few years.
ERIK SHERMAN | Columnist
Erik Sherman's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.