New clusters light on compute, big on storage

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Stacey Higginbotham over at GigaOM writes this week about SeaMicro, a server company building clusters out of low-(horse)power processors

SeaMicro, a stealthy server company based in Santa Clara, Calif., today scored $9.3 million from the Department of Energy as part of a program to encourage data center efficiency. It’s built a box that contains 512 Atom CPUs, a petabyte of storage, and costs less than $100,000, which it hopes to use to exploit the growing gap in computing workloads that the major server and chip vendors have ignored.

The nut is that most cluster solutions are built for intensive processing of data. But what about cases where the operations on the data are relatively light, but there are a lot of jobs and/or a lot of data? The commercial examples are companies like Facebook, but many of the requirements of digital humanities projects going (and growing) on today are similar

Speaking at our Structure 09 conference last year, Facebook VP of Technical Operations Jonathan Heiliger took the hardware guys to task for designing chips and boxes that don’t adequately meet the needs of companies like his, which don’t need as much horsepower from their processors.

SeaMicro isn’t alone in attacking this problem; another is Austin, Texas-based Smooth Stone, which is using ARM-based chips. But both of these firms are going against what is currently the biggest trend in corporate data centers: commodity servers. Such boxes aren’t simply a collection of low-power chips — they have to be networked from inside in order to deliver optimal performance for the lowest power consumption, which is really what SeaMicro and Smooth Stone are selling.