HP Bets on Atom for Low-Power Server Moonshot

HP announced on Monday that it will use an Intel Atom chip code-named “Centerton” in the first production server in its Project Moonshot program. This server is code-named “Gemini.”

Moonshot is aimed at creating servers with low power requirements that will cut data-center energy and space requirements, as well as costs.

The Gemini server will be processor-agnostic, meaning HP will be able to use processors from other manufacturers, including AMD, ARM and Calxeda, which offers ARM-based processors.

“HP is trying to create a more flexible platform that can use different hardware or processing solutions and can be configured for almost any application,” Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research, told TechNewsWorld.

The goal “dates back to the blade server solutions like VME, CompactPCI and AdvancedTCA,” McGregor continued. However, these solutions “were never as flexible, interchangeable or cost-effective as they could or should have been.”

Gemini’s Specs

Gemini will leverage server cartridges in an enclosure that will pool resources across thousands of servers, HP said. These cartridges are workload-optimized.

Unlike traditional servers, which have dedicated components that include management, networking, storage, power cords and cooling fans in one enclosure, Gemini will be able to support thousands of servers per rack that will share these components. This will reduce the size of the rack and beef up its compute power while slashing complexity, energy use and costs, HP said.

“I believe HP will use the standard server rack dimensions so that they can easily replace existing solutions with little effort,” Tirias Research’s McGregor remarked. “The standard is a 19-inch rack with varying heights and depths.

Heat management and dissipation are major problems with server racks, but McGregor said that lower-power processors “may significantly reduce” airflow and heat sink requirements for the Gemini servers.

The Gemini server system with the Intel Centerton server cartridge will be ideal for Web servers, offline analytics and hosting, according to HP. The system is in use at HP’s Discovery lab in Houston and will be available for customer testing soon. It’s scheduled to begin shipping in early production to customers by the end of the year.

Of Cartridges and Centerton

A cartridge “is just a solution that plugs into a platform and may contain one or many modules,” Tirias’ McGregor said. In the case of HP’s Gemini server, it “is a drawer that can contain many modules.” You can have different modules for different applications or functions.

HP has a roadmap of Gemini server cartridges incorporating processors from other vendors for use within the Gemini system.

The Intel Centerton has 64-bit support, error-correcting code (ECC) memory, and an established software x86 ecosystem, HP said.

The Centerton is more like a system on a chip (SoC) than an ordinary CPU, according to Softpedia. It will have two x86-64 cores with a 24 KB L1 data cache, a 32 KB L1 instruction cache and 512 KB of L2 dedicated cache memory. Maximum clock speed is 1.6 Ghz.

Why Low-Power Servers?

HP isn’t the only player offering low-power servers; SeaMicro launched one in February 2011 that used 256 Intel Atom N570 dual-core processors.

AMD acquired SeaMicro in March. SeaMicro functions as a separate unit within the larger company, AMD spokesperson Tara Sims told TechNewsWorld.

Dell has been reselling SeaMicro low-power servers and continues to do so, Sims said.

There’s a move toward low-power servers because hardware vendors want to increase efficiency. “You want as much compute density as possible, but power and thermals are the greatest constraint on the design of high-performance computing solutions,” Tirias’ McGregor explained. “If you can reduce the power and thermals, you can pack more components into a smaller space and save on the cost of powering and cooling the platform.”

HP declined to provide further comment.

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