An emerging class of extremely low-power servers is helping Internet companies and hosting providers to slash their energy bills, and proponents say they could have a role in the enterprise as well.

The servers, offered by established players such as Dell and SGI as well as start-ups such as SeaMicro, cut power use by reducing server components to a minimum, aggregating fans and power supplies across several servers, and employing low-power processors normally used in netbooks and other mobile devices, such as Via's Nano processor and Intel's Atom chip.

Examples include Dell's "Fortuna" server, which crams 12 mini servers based on Via Nano processors into a 2U chassis. It's a fully functioning server with its own storage, memory, management controller and dual 1GbE cards, but each server consumes less than 30 watts of power at full load - far less than a typical server of the same size. Dell developed the server with web hosting companies in mind.

More radical is SeaMicro's SM10000, introduced in June, which crams 512 single-core Z530 Atom chips into a 10U system, or about a quarter of a standard server rack. SeaMicro's breakthrough is a custom ASIC that replaces most of the components on a typical server board, including storage and networking controllers, leaving just three chips: the processor, DRAM and ASIC.

"The big processors are like taking a spaceship to the grocery store for most problems today," says Andrew Feldman, SeaMicro's CEO. "What you really need is a Prius."

SeaMicro says the boxes provide equivalent performance at a fraction of the power of traditional rackmount servers, and in far less space. It can cram 2,048 Atom CPUs in a fully loaded rack that burns just 8 kilowatts.

The low-power processors are not powerful, but they are well suited to workloads that can be broken into many smaller, separate tasks that are executed independently, said John Abbott, chief analyst at The 451 Group. "That's what the big CPUs from Intel and AMD aren't good at; they have to be fully utilized or they're not being efficient."

Web-scale companies such as Yahoo and Microsoft use the low-power servers for jobs like dishing up search results or displaying status updates. They are also popular among hosting providers who want to offer customers a dedicated server at minimal cost.

Data mining and more

While those companies are the main target for these low-power servers today, proponents say they could be used in the future for certain tasks at large corporations. The example most often cited is large-scale data mining, where the servers can be used to uncover trends among terabytes of data such as financial transactions, customer records and blogs.

"I'm not advising anybody to migrate enterprise workloads to these new platforms. That would be a disaster," says Forrest Norrod, who run's Dell's server division. "But when you are doing new development, new services, you've got to start considering these new cloud architectures because they are going to offer the lowest marginal cost to compute."

For data mining, tools such as Apache Hadoop, which is open source software inspired by Google's MapReduce, allow petabytes of data to be distributed across a cluster of commodity servers and then searched and analysed at high speed. Aster Data and Greenplum, recently acquired by EMC, also offer tools for distributed data mining.

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