Intel is continuing to shore up its defences against ARM's assault on the data centre, launching its first Atom processor officially designed for the server market.

Described by the company as 'the world's first six-watt server-class product,' the new Atom S1200 family boasts a 64-bit implementation of Intel's low-power x86 architecture - originally designed for use in netbooks and embedded systems - in a system-on-chip (SoC) design which is claimed to offer everything a server needs to run cloud-type workloads.

'The data centre continues to evolve into unique segments and Intel continues to be a leader in these transitions,' claimed Diane Bryant, vice president and general manager of the Datacentre and Connected Systems Group, at the launch. 'We recognized several years ago the need for a new breed of high-density, energy-efficient servers and other data centre equipment. Today, we are delivering the industry’s only six-watt SoC that has key data centre features, continuing our commitment to help lead these segments.'

Granted, Intel's claims of hitting a six-watt low need to be put into perspective here: only a single chip, the Atom S1240, manages to get near that figure with an official thermal design profile (TDP) of 6.1W. The remaining two chips, the Atom S1260 and Atom S1220, run at 8.5W and 8.1W respectively - still, it has to be said, a pretty impressive achievement for a server-oriented SoC design with full x86 compatibility.

Each chip boasts two processing cores with Intel's Hyper-Threading providing support for running four simultaneous processes. The on-board memory controller can handle up to 8GB of DDR3 memory per chip - something of a disappointment from a 64-bit processor, it has to be said - and each SoC includes full support for Intel VT virtualisation extensions, error correcting code (ECC) operation and eight lanes of PCI Express 2.0 connectivity.

The slowest chip, the 8.1W Intel Atom S1220, runs at 1.6GHz and includes 1MB of cache memory. The Atom S1260 upgrades this with a 2GHz clock-speed for a slight increase in TDP at 8.5W. The headline-grabbing Atom S1240, meanwhile, offers the same performance as the S1220 at 1.6GHz but in an impressive 6.1W power envelope. All three SoCs are constructed on a 32nm lithographic process node, with no benefit from Intel's tri-gate transistor technology.

While the specifications may seem weak for a server chip, there is method in Intel's madness: as well as targeting micro-servers, the company is heavily pushing the new Atom parts into cloud computing - a burgeoning industry which is exemplified by the need to run hundreds of undemanding threads simultaneously. Here, the low TDP of the Atom chips means that hundreds of such processors can be packed into ever-smaller spaces - and while four threads and 8GB of RAM isn't much, cramming 192 of the chips into a rack would provide support for 768 simultaneous threads and 1.5TB of RAM in under 1.2KW of TDP.

Intel's rival AMD, which recently purchased micro-server expert SeaMicro only to turn around and launch an Intel-powered model six months later, has been vocal in its disdain for Intel's announcement. In an email to press, the company claimed that Intel was 'not supportive' of SeaMicro's use of Atom chips in the SM10000 server product, and points to the creation of a 64-bit dual-core Atom part specifically for SeaMicro nearly two years before this week's announcement.

'Intel is way behind on small cores. They have no cell phone market share, little tablet market share, and now they are threatened that they will lose server market share,' claimed an AMD spokesperson. 'AMD and its SeaMicro technology are leading the charge in micro server technology and development. We recently announced a technology partnership with ARM and plans to roll out micro servers using ARM technology.'

With ARM winning friends in the industry thanks to its first true 64-bit designs, it's clear that this was a move Intel had to make - regardless of its history with Atom-powered servers.

Pricing on the parts starts at $54, but only if you're ordering a tray of 1,000 or more.

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