According to reports (see ,,), Microsoft is taking a look at Intel’s Atom processor as a possible CPU platform for servers in the cloud. In case you aren’t familiar, Atom is Intel’s processor targeted at low-power devices like Netbooks, so you have to ask “why build a server from it?” On the positive side, such a server could be physically small, would have very low power requirements, and would not generate much heat (all of which are attractive characteristics if you want to put tens of thousands of servers into a single data center.) On the other hand, such a server would be almost completely devoid of scalability in terms of I/O and memory bandwidth, memory capacity, and a host of other features that we see as essential to conventional data center applications.
This set of characteristics makes an Atom-powered server suitable for some things, but not for others. For example lets say we are building two cloud data centers. The first cloud DC will handle “infrastructure as a service” and must host a large number of arbitrarily sized workloads, some of which may require significant memory and I/O scalability. For this type of application, conventional servers are a better fit since there is no way to easily scale the Atom platform to support a workload that demands more processing, memory, and I/O capacity than the processor is able to provide.
The second cloud data center is intended to provide “platform as a service” where the platform (say Azure or GoogleApps) is designed to make use of massive parallelism and spread itself across as many servers as possible. With this type of workload you don’t need large servers, you just need lots of relatively dumb, power efficient, and cheap hosts that you can buy by the container load.
So, server hardware in the cloud will evolve in different directions depending on the nature of the service that the cloud will offer, and you may very well see “clouds of Atoms” in some applications, but you will also see clouds built around more conventional and scalable architectures.
Posted by: Nik Simpson