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Not quite Heinz: Intel's Avoton server chip comes in 13 varieties

James Niccolai | Sept. 5, 2013
The low-power Atom chip is available in multiple variants to better compete with ARM-based processors.

Intel is taking another run at the market for low-power, high-density servers with its new "Avoton" chip, which was launched Wednesday and will do battle with an expected upcoming wave of ARM-based processors.

About 10 vendors showed Avoton systems at an Intel event in San Francisco Wednesday. Some of them will ship later this year. They include a mix of compute, network and "cold storage" servers from Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Quanta and others.

Avoton refers to a family of chips, called the Atom C2000 line, that's built on Intel's new Silvermont core and manufactured on a 22-nanometer process. Intel says Avoton will provide seven times the performance and six times the performance per watt of its predecessor, Centerton, which came out nine months ago.

There will be 13 versions of Avoton tuned for different applications, including compute, storage, network security and wireless functions. They'll vary in the number of cores, the amount of memory they address, whether they need cooling fans, and other characteristics.

It's a big change from the past, when Intel offered basically the same server chip but at different clock speeds and with different cache sizes. And it reflects increased competition from ARM-based processors, which are being developed by several vendors for different markets.

"We're clearly demonstrating Intel's move from a general-purpose compute provider to selling optimized products that address specific workloads," said Diane Bryant, general manager of Intel's Datacenter and Connected Systems Group.

That need has become greater as vendors such as Calxeda, Marvell and Applied Micro ready ARM-based server chips. Many of the server vendors at Intel's event Wednesday said they'll also offer ARM-based systems in the coming year.

"I wouldn't call [Avoton] a game changer, but it's finally evidence that Intel takes the small-core business seriously," said industry analyst Patrick Moorhead, of Moor Insights & Strategy.

Historically, he said, Intel treated Atom as a poorer cousin to its more expensive Xeon chips, but it now seems to realize that Atom could be essential to its future.

HP said it will offer Avoton in a new version of its Moonshot server that will ship later this year. It will be targeted at front-end Web applications, dedicated hosting services and certain big data workloads, said Gerald Kleyn, director of platform engineering for HP's hyperscale servers.

"The first Moonshot system was really for static Web pages, but this gets into dynamic pages. Clearly with the higher performance you can do more work to deliver content," he said.

The server includes 45 tiny processor boards, or what HP refers to as cartridges, in a chassis that's 4.3 rack units, or about 7.5 inches (19 cm), high. That's the same number of cartridges as the existing Moonshot. But Avoton increases the core count over Centerton from two to eight, and it has two memory controllers, which improves memory bandwidth and allowed HP to attach 32GB of memory with each cartridge, Kleyn said.


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