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Low-Power Platforms: Inexpensive Green Solutions for Workgroups and SMBs

To read the press today, you would think that the only way for companies to save energy on the scads of servers in the data center is be to consolidate them as virtual machines on a large, well-equipped virtualization server. This is certainly a solution, as I have pointed out in previous columns; however, it is not the only option.

A very reasonable alternative is to migrate apps running on old hardware to new energy-savings platforms. This approach avoids the migration to virtualization and the costs of using server hardware to drive a low-power application. This migration might seem pointless in view of the fact that buying new hardware to replace old hardware can only save a limited amount of energy and it creates non-green waste. However, there are a number of factors that are coming together that make this option more attractive. They are: 1) substantial reductions in power consumption; 2) substantial reductions in cost; 3) substantial increases in performance; and 4) the high cost of power. As I have pointed out earlier, low-power consuming systems with quad-cores CPUs can host many applications, even without virtualization and deliver stunning performance.

But in the sub-enterprise companies, lesser systems can solve many problems. These systems deliver the benefits I just listed via a new generation of powerful, low wattage microprocessors. The chip that's been getting the lion's share of attention recently is Intel's Atom processor. It's certainly not the only chip in this category, but it's an excellent representative of the new silicon. It's a full 32-bit Intel x86 processor (with some models supporting 64 bits) that has support for two-thread Hyper-Threading, and full high-speed arithmetic capabilities (SSE through SSE-3). Depending on the model, it consumes anywhere from 1 watt to 2.5 watts. Given that low-end desktop processors, such as Intel dual-core chips today run at more than 40 watts, the Atom is an astounding little piece of technology.

While the Atom was designed for mobile devices such as smart phones (where its energy consumption is still somewhat high), it makes an ideal CPU for low-power applications that don't need blazing performance. With that in mind, several companies are coming out with motherboards based on the chip. Even Intel is joining in this market with its D945GCLF motherboard that uses the Mini ITX form factor, which is roughly 6.5-inch square and small enough to be passively cooled -- that is without a system fan (all designs, however, place a fan on the processor). These systems with 1GB or more of RAM, a supporting chipset, a power supply and a disk, consume less than 40 watts and perform very adequately. Fully assembled, they cost $200. In other words, a new one could easily be bought with petty cash. A large portion of the 40 watts the system consumes comes from the Intel chip set, which eats up a disproportionate 22 watts. As other chipsets become available for the Atom, the economies of both power and price should become even more favorable.

The Atom is not the only good processor in this category. AMD and Via are two companies that compete here too. Via, a Taiwanese semiconductor manufacturer, is generally the lowest-price, lowest-performance vendor; whereas AMD competes at the high end. Its Athlon 64 entrant, for example, beats the Atom on overall system performance and consumption, despite using more power than the Atom. The key is that the chipset for the AMD processor is much more energy efficient. For a recent comparative review between the two chips, see this piece from Tom's Hardware.

This low-end system market segment has been thriving for a long time, living in the sub-basement of specialized apps and hardware. There are numerous offerings in this space, some that go down to tiny motherboards with low-performance processors that use a negligible trickle of power. However, this market segment is about to become far more prominent due to the new powerful chips that sip energy and customers' greater focus on being green. And so, the new systems will begin providing a green alternative to existing small servers and to the unthinking use of virtualization.

In the enterprise, their time is not yet. But it is definitely coming at the departmental level; and it has certainly arrived for small workgroups and SMBs. In the latter contexts, these machines can serve comfortably as firewalls, Internet and Intranet servers, file servers, and the like.

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