Google's Power-Hogging Server Farms Versus SeaMicro's Super-Efficient Supercomputers

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The computer server industry may not sound like a hotbed for innovation to you, but SeaMicro thinks differently. It's just rocked the server world with a super-computer-like product that's smaller and more power-efficient than any rival's.

SeaMicro's approach is very different from the giant industrial-grade rack servers that companies like Intel and IBM churn out to meet the needs of companies like Google (with server farms that are so energy-sucking that they eat as much electricity as the city of Tacoma, Washington does). These machines typically appear much like a desktop machine, with a big CPU on a motherboard, a host of ancillary chips and a bulky power supply.

But SeaMicro design is radically different: It uses Intel Atom CPUs, that were initially designed to power the netbook revolution. You may think by using a chip that's as low in computer power as an Atom that SeaMicro machines aren't powerful—but you'd be wrong. Inside the server there are actually 512 of the little CPUs thrumming along together. By jamming four of these server units together in one rack, SeaMicro's machine could have 2,048 CPU cores connected up in a cross-wired system called a "fabric." That basically turns the tiny Atoms into elements in a supercomputer that roars along at 1.28 terabits per second.

There's lots of clever software in there too, and specialized hardware that virtualizes some of the data-handling tasks that typical rack servers use bulky hardware for (mainly since their designs have inertia—this is how servers have always been built), meaning there's something like 90% fewer components on the motherboards. And whereas older servers would use one power supply per CPU, SeaMicro's uses one supply for four chips.

The upshot is that a SeaMicro device has 512 cores in a box that's just 25% of the size of a normal server rack. And it devours significantly less electricity—as well as generating less waste heat that you'd usually require expensive and environmentally disastrous air conditioning to get rid of. How much of a saving do you make though? SeaMicro uses the SpecInt computing standard as a measure, with a distributed computing task that would take four years to complete. Compared to a "normal" Dell server installation which would cost about the same in terms of initial hardware, SeaMicro's hardware can save you over a million dollars of bills. That's a lot of cash. And it's saving a lot of carbon footprint too, assuming that computer giants like Google just don't leap upon SeaMicro's impressive offering, and use the tech to install servers that are four times more powerful but take up the same space ...

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