AMD SeaMicro’s Head-Start In Microserver Markets

SeaMicro Highlights

  • The most established microserver vendor acquired by AMD in 2012
  • Includes low-powered small core and large core processors in its SM15000 chassis
  • Removes unnecessary components from the motherboard
  • Shuts down unneeded client-side processes
  • Sets up a Super Computer fabric
  • Disaggregates storage and networking as external – rather than purely internal – functions
  • Runs multiple operating systems
  • Faces strong competition from HP, Dell and others as they begin to focus on the market that SeaMicro pioneered

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With our increasing focus on microservers we took the opportunity to spend some time last week talking to Andrew Feldman and the former SeaMicro team. Andrew was a co-founder and CEO of SeaMicro’s and now AMD’s Corporate Vice President and GM, Server Business. You’ll certainly be interested in how is company is developing and how it is differentiated from offerings such as HP Moonshot and Dell Viking.

SeaMicro Company And Products

SeaMicro was founded in 2007. It was the first to market with what are now known as microservers. At first Intel didn’t’ believe that anyone would want to buy an Atom-based server, but supplied SeaMicro with chips in any case. It started shipping product around 3 ½ years ago and has now supplied 100ks of servers. AMD acquired SeaMicro in February 2012, paying $334 million.
Its SM15000 Fabric Compute servers are 10U rack-mounted servers systems containing either large-core (Intel Xeon and AMD Opteron) or small-core (currently Atom, with ARM coming in 2014). So the maximum chip, DRAM and core counts are:

  • 64 Octal core AMD Opteron processors with 64GB DRAM each for a total of 512 cores.
  • 64 Quad core Ivy Bridge or Sandy Bridge Intel Xeon processors with 32GB DRAM each for a total of 256 cores
  • 256 dual core Intel Atom N570 processors each with 4GB of DRAM for a total of 512 Atom cores

The SM15000 chassis also allows up to 8 hot-swappable network cards providing up to 16 x 10GbE uplink ports. There are also 8 internal disk slots that support up to 64 internal disk drives and 1408 external drives. A single system can support more than 5 PB of storage. The systems are RoHS compliant (for this and all acronyms – see our Acronym Buster) and come with a 3-year warranty. The servers can run all off-the-shelf operating systems and hypervisors including Windows and all flavours of Linux as well as VMware KVM and Citrix hypervisors.

The 3 Inventions That Make SeaMicro Different

The former SeaMicro team (now the Data Center Server Solutions Business Unit inside of AMD) is rightly proud of the investments the company has made over the years, citing 3 leadership inventions which are incorporated into the Freedom ASIC. In particular:

  • It provides I/O virtualisation and allows it to remove all components from its motherboards apart from the CPU, DRAM and Freedom ASIC itself; this approach allows the storage systems to be put on the other side of the fabric, unknown to the operating system; this gives its systems the tremendous advantages as you can RAID the disk, run with zero disk, or boot from the network
  • Its TIO technology reaches into the processor and turns off unneeded CPU blocks to optimised power usage; x86 chips support all sorts of client-side processes for audio and graphics which are unnecessary for server compute, as anyone who’s remembers looking on as older versions of Windows install themselves will know
  • The Freedom ASIC also creates a multi-dimensional massively-resilient Taurus supercompute fabric; the Freedom Fabric delivers each of the 64 sockets more than 10Gigabits per second bandwidth, giving a total of 1.28Terabits per second for the system; the SM15000 supports a maximum of 16 x 10GB Ethernet uplink ports (or up to 64 1GbE uplink ports)

The former SeaMicro team believes that the SeaMicro Freedom ASIC (so named, because it frees the motherboard from traditional encumbrances) gives it a huge advantage over other microservers in energy efficiency, density storage, networking and operating system compatibility.
The SM15000 is currently unique as a microserver in its ability to share storage across its CPUs. Any CPU can mount any disk (or slice of a disk), because it disaggregates storage functions from the CPU. Other systems (such as Dell Viking and HP Moonshot) have disk drives that have to be dedicated to the CPU, on the same motherboard and cartridge. Disaggregation also allows the SM15000 to run any x86 operating system, like Dell Viking, while HP Moonshot only runs Linux.

Which Workloads And Customers?

Andrew says SeaMicro servers don’t tend to run mySQL, Oracle databases, SAP, or ‘big traditional Enterprise CRM’ applications. However the energy efficiency, compute density (512 cores in a rack at around 3Kwatts), choice of small and large core processors, SAN/NAS-like storage ‘at DAS price points’ and ability to run multiple operating systems expands SeaMicro workloads beyond the ‘small physical cores for managed service providers’ offered by Moonshot.
SeaMicro addresses Cloud, Web and application tiers, big data, workgroup, Super Computing, Development/Build environments, Genomics, and many other workloads. It has an impressive set of customers including Rackspace, the University of Texas, Cloudera (‘Hadoop in a Box’), Ooma (for phone services), Livestream, Wayfair (eRetail) and eHarmony, as well as governmental agencies in the US, Canada and the UK.
We discussed Andrews’s expectations for the microserver market. He thinks the market will grow massively in 2013 from a modest base within the total $50 billion server market. Microserver sales will grow substantially over the next several years, achieving a share of over 15 % by 2015. For us it’s a question of incorporating it into our forecast (see Figure 1). We will provide a full forecast once we have a few quarters of sales data. Our view is that the server market will be worth $59 billion in 2013 and we agree that microservers will be only a small proportion.

Some Conclusions – Good Opportunities As Bigger Players Weigh In

SeaMicro’s ASIC allows it to remove unnecessary components, turn off unneeded client-side blocks and reuse the cycle for power optimisation and set up a supercomputer fabric. It also includes big and small core processors to enable a wider spread of usage cases. Its systems have been around longer, have more customers and address a much wider spread of workloads than the new competitors from the larger players.
It is good for SeaMicro that larger server suppliers are endorsing its chosen market by launching their own microservers, but there is a threat that its creativity and investments could be eclipsed – few journalists have mentioned SeaMicro when covering HP’s Moonshot introduction for instance, although in its own checks SeaMicro knows that customers around the world are familiar with the company and SM15000 server.
Its acquisition by AMD gives it a stronger position and we expect it to start putting ARM chips into products when introduced in 2014 (microservers are the logical place, but everyone’s having to wait for the 32-64 bit transition). However traditionally AMD is a server chip producer rather than a server vendor and there are questions to be asked over SeaMicro’s long-term commitment to the use of Intel chips. More importantly SeaMicro should be able to help AMD transform its business away from its over-dependence on the PC market.
Andrew and the former SeaMicro Team have a great story to tell – we expect it to continue to lead as the microserver market builds over the next 3 years.

3 Responses to “AMD SeaMicro’s Head-Start In Microserver Markets”

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  1. dkypuros says:

    Your comments on the moonshot are a bit outdated…”small physical cores for managed service providers’ offered by Moonshot”. Need to do some updating. Moonshot can larger cores now 🙂

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