"The fundamental challenge that big data centers will face from 2016 to 2020 time frame is power consumption," Luijten said.
An effective way to run server applications is by breaking up the processing over many power-efficient cores, Luijten said.
"The world has learned how to divide and conquer with parallel computing," Luijten said.
The new prototype microcomputers are 133 millimeters by 55 millimeters, and IBM claims they have the same computing power as standard, 305 millimeter by 245 millimeters server motherboards. The microcomputers have 12-core T4240 CPUs based on the PowerPC architecture, which are mainly used in embedded devices.
IBM is aiming to further shrink computers through the integration of power, logic, memory and storage controllers. The company's researchers are also considering a number of chip architectures, like ARM, for use in future chips.
Power distribution over chips is a big problem that needs to be resolved, Luijten said. About 98 percent of the energy at the chip and board levels are used to transmit data from point A to point B, Luijten said. Data is moved from the CPU through a number of channels before it reaches memory, storage or PCI-Express slots.
"That's just eating up the board," Luijten said, adding that he is looking for ways to cut the distance between the CPU, Ethernet and other throughput interfaces.
Future iterations of the IBM prototype microcomputers could be critical for the company's struggling server business. IBM, which has put its homegrown Power8 chips on servers, announced earlier this year that it will sell the x86 side of its server business to Lenovo for $2.3 billion.
Luijten declined to comment on the possible impact of the Iatest microcomputer research on IBM's long-term business, but said component integration could help the company explore new types of servers.
"What we must do is contract computers to the smallest volumes possible."
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