March 8, 2011
Intel, despite a popular tendency to associate a dominant market position with indifference to competitive threats, has not been sitting still waiting for the ARM server phenomenon to engulf them in a wave of ultra-low-power servers. Intel is fiercely competitive, and it would be silly for any new entrants to assume that Intel will ignore a threat to the heart of a high-growth segment.
In 2009, Intel released a microserver specification for compact low-power servers, and along with competitor AMD, it has been aggressive in driving down the power envelope of its mainstream multicore x86 server products. Recent momentum behind ARM-based servers has heated this potential competition up, however, and Intel has taken the fight deeper into the low-power realm with the recent introduction of the N570, a an existing embedded low-power processor, as a server CPU aimed squarely at emerging ultra-low-power and dense servers. The N570, a dual-core Atom processor, is being currently used by a single server partner, ultra-dense server manufacturer SeaMicro (see Little Servers For Big Applications At Intel Developer Forum), and will allow them to deliver their current 512 Atom cores with half the number of CPU components and some power savings.
Technically, the N570 is a dual-core Atom CPU with 64 bit arithmetic, a differentiator against ARM, and the same 32-bit (4 GB) physical memory limitations as current ARM designs, and it should have a power dissipation of between 8 and 10 watts.
As a single product, the N570 is not a terribly significant event. As a sign that Intel is serious about an emerging competitive threat, the fact that has repurposed an existing product that is well outside the power and performance envelope of its primary CPU product line initially for a single (although nobody expects it to be the only) partner, it is a pointer to a progression of products from Intel to aggressively compete in this emerging segment. In regards to potential market size, it is worth noting that the market for microroservers is currently very small, probably in the 1 – 3% of the server market, and that the eventual attractiveness of this opportunty depends on the growth of the microserver segment, which is still somewhat controversial. If it grows to 10%, within three years, that will be over 1 million servers, a size that begins to get interesting, especially since these servers will have many more processors than today's mainstream servers. If it experiences explosive growth as a result of partially displacing what are now mainstream servers, than it gets extremely intersting. Our expectation is that Intel, while not excessively worried about a segment that is only low single-digit percentages of the total available market, is being functionally paranoid in positioning itself to make a little money if the market stays small and protect tiself if it surges.