Microsoft Pressing Intel for 16-Core Atom

Microsoft is reportedly pushing Intel to create a 16-core version of its low-power Atom chip. The reason behind the request makes perfect sense: to use these processors to reduce the overall amount of power consumed by servers stationed in massive data centers--especially those powering Bing, Hotmail and Windows Live Messenger-- without sacrificing performance.

In a speech presented at The Linley Group Data Center Conference in Silicon Valley, Dileep Bhandarkar, an engineer with Microsoft's Global Foundation Services, said that there's a "huge opportunity" to improve energy efficiency by using servers based on processors like Intel's Atom, AMD's Bobcat or Via's Nano.

As it stands now, Intel processors-- like the Xeon--crammed in Microsoft's servers bring high clock speeds but are burdened with heavy power consumption and active cooling, thus costing the company a pretty penny. By using a 16-core Atom processor, Microsoft's thinking is that it can achieve the same high-GHz performance using the low power multi-core system-on-a-chip, thus requiring less power and cooling.

"When you look at these tiny cores, another way of making them work in a very efficient way is [not to] surround them with a whole bunch of south bridges and network controllers," he said. "Essentially, the tiny cores and systems-on-chip should go together."

Bhandarkar expects Intel to eventually cave in now that ARM is heading into the server sector, adding that Intel will need to rely on the Atom in order to compete with ARM on power performance per watt. That said, there's a possibility Microsoft could incorporate ARM-based servers in the future. The only drawback is that the architecture will need to overcome a few serious hurdles first while also showing a clear performance benefit over x86 solutions.

"Instruction-set transitions are extremely painful," Bhandarkar said. "As a general rule of thumb, you have to have a sustainable improvement per dollar per watt of at least 2x -- some would say 5x -- but it's at least 2x to make it worthwhile. For some apps where you don't have that dependency the number could be smaller. ARM's an interesting thing to look at and, if nothing else, if it lights a fire under Intel and AMD to deliver more effective x86 solutions, I'm happy."

Currently Intel has no announcements to make in regards to Atom chips for data centers.

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