Mobile Processors in Servers; A Good Idea or an Industry Cash Grab?

Yesterday I was made aware of two newish companies that are creating servers from processors that are typically found in mobile devices. The first company,, manufactures a 10u behemoth that is “Designed to replace 40 1 RU servers”. The product’s name, SM10000, is not going to win any marketing awards. Nonetheless it might win some EcoFriendly awards from the greener members of society. It has 512 1.6 GHz Intel Atom CPUs, a 1.28 Terabit interconnect fabric, Up to 64 x 1 Gbps or 16 x 10 Gbps uplinks, 0-64 SATA SSD/Hard disk and Integrated load balancing, Ethernet switching, and server management. How much power does it consume? Less than 2KW.

The second company that I learned about is Smooth Stone. They don’t appear to be making hardware yet, but they are quoted as using “…industry-standard ARM architecture and tools”. I’m interested to see what products they produce in the (hopefully) near future.

Learning about the above companies and also seeing more dedicated servers offering Atom processor packages has made me wonder: What’s the deal with these mobile processors making their way into the server room?

I know that power consumption is a big deal for many datacenters. I know that some people are concerned about using less power in an effort to “save the planet” – although I think most of the chatter about being “Green” is more in reference to the amount of money people will save (only works if your nation’s currency is green though. Apologies to non-American readers). It’s making me wonder if it’s not an effort by mobile processors manufactures to make a quick cash-grab off of people interested in “Greening Up” or who are too poor to afford virtualization software to consolidate their servers to decrease power usage.

I admit, I’m not a SysAdmin that has had to deal with large scale operations. As a result, I could be missing something obvious (or not-so-obvious). However, here’s the conundrum that mobile processor servers seem to create:

  1. You have a server that is powered by a mobile processor
  2. It is less powerful than a Xeon or Opteron processor.
  3. More of them are needed to perform the same job.
  4. You use the same amount of power as before, just spread out over more processors (and thus possibly incurring a multi-threading or load balancing penalty)

Sure, you won’t use an ARM server for a high performance database. Perhaps these servers are aimed more at low to mid range server uses such as file servers, SMB proxy servers or similar things. Or perhaps its an attempt by the mobile chip manufacturers to compete with virtualization.

The major proponents of virtualization have long touted the economy of using less servers to do more with. Less servers idling means less of an electric bill. Super! But what if the power consumed by idling servers is equal to or less than virtualization’s gains? I haven’t seen, or even looked for, any studies that compare the two ideals but it seems like an interesting theory to research.

Mobile processors in servers seem bizarre for all but a few niche uses. I might like to make a home media server out of one or have one in my closet as a test server. I’m sure VDS resellers must be making money off of it since there’s such a proliferation of Atom dedicated servers out there. However, I just don’t see it taking off. To be fair, I’m having my own power troubles as I try to discern if I can get away with a half-cabinet in a colocation environment that only gives me 3KW or if I need to go up to the full cabinet that gives 9KW. Perhaps a SM10000 could help me out there.

What are your thoughts on mobile processors in servers? Am I missing something? Doesn’t virtualization diminish the need for mobile processors? Let me know in the comments.


  1. niqdanger

    November 11, 2010 at 8:23 am

    Its not all magical cloud computing. Sometimes it really is 40 different 1U servers. So having 40 servers in one small power consuming box, is handy.


    • Wesley.Nonapeptide

      November 11, 2010 at 10:03 am

      I know there has to be some good uses for this type of thing, I just haven’t had anyone show it to me yet. I suspect it’s mostly niche.

      Nonetheless, that 10u monster is still darn cool. =)


  2. esproul

    November 15, 2010 at 1:45 pm

    You pick the right tool for the job. If you workload already has a lot of parallelism and doesn’t require much single-thread performance, then hardware like this should help. Think media transcoding, for example.


    • Wesley.Nonapeptide

      November 15, 2010 at 1:49 pm

      Good points. I think my incredulity is less about the fact that a need for this hardware exists. There’s always a need for anything, no matter how strange it may seem. But rather that the need is as significant as it seems to be being advertised.

      Servers like this are just another arrow in the quill.


  3. Twirrim

    November 28, 2010 at 11:20 pm

    On and off I think about replacing our dev environment boxes mostly with atom based systems. We just don’t need the power there. Could probably replace all but two (DB servers) probably with a single VM beast of some description, and even then CPU power is hardly critical. Irritatingly I don’t have any feasible power management options for the ones we do have. I wouldn’t do that in production, but in dev I’d love them to be throttling the CPU back but the hardware doesn’t suppoort it.


    • Wesley.Nonapeptide

      November 30, 2010 at 2:30 pm

      It seems that most people I talk to about it think of using Atom servers only in their dev environments. Interesting trend.


  4. Biggles77

    December 31, 2010 at 7:57 pm

    HUH??? My only experience with the Atom 1.6 is in NetBooks and the darn things struggle there. I sure wouldn’t put them into a Server where VMs are running. What Admin out there in Serverland is NOT running VMs on their Servers and getting better use out of their previously unused cycles.


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