Bigger has come to mean better in server technology. That’s what you learn when you get an information systems degree. And it’s for a good reason, because that is how corporate IT has generally worked. Larger and faster servers with more capabilities processors and extensive memory allow consolidation of workloads and virtualization, reducing power and cooling expenses.
These have been the keystones to improving the efficiency and effectiveness of data centers. But there is an alternative technology that is coming to market: microservers. Instead of using the most powerful processors available, these devices use arrays of small, power-efficient chips to deliver computation. Dell has systems that use Xeon processors — up to 12 quad-core chips to a server. HP and Calxeda partnered on an ARM-based server. Manufacturer SeaMicro started by using hundreds of Intel Atom chips, originally intended for mobile devices like netbooks, to create a server that the company claims use a quarter of the power and between one-quarter to one-third of the floor space that an equivalent number of more typically-configured servers would need.
The technology could not replace everything regular servers could do. But in some areas like serving websites, microservers have shown that they can offer an important tool to IT departments. SeaMicro has extended the concept to use low-power Xeon processors. The innovation of SeaMicro is to share certain elements like hard drive controllers, BIOS, and network support among all the processors in a server. Unusual approaches to servers? Certainly, but these are innovations responding to a significant need of corporations that see the tally of power costs at data centers continue to rise and that want the advantage without necessarily requiring application to be rewritten.
That’s why AMD recently bought SeaMicro, with expectations that the company would not settle for using chips by its rival, Intel, but will eventually move their own processors into such devices. Not all companies need to overhaul their ranks of servers with such low-power systems. However, a great many will, particular for niche computing needs that seem a good match for the microservers.
That means an opportunity for those with an IT degree who want to add a new area of expertise to their resumes. Although programs may not need alteration or recompilation to work on these systems, doubtless different administrative practices will develop to match the changes in architecture and implementation.
The arrival of microservers also underscores how important the ability to save power and space, so as to avoid the need for building new data centers, has become. Looking beyond the microserver itself, it suggests that an overall expertise in how to outfit and run corporate computing needs to reduce such costs will be a marketable skill.