Intel\’s Atom mini-ITX board has some interesting possibilities

A story on The Register tipped me off to a small motherboard using Intel’s new Atom CPU. A UK data center is using the chip to power servers, and The Reg asks if it’s madness or genius.

More on that in a minute.It’s an interesting minimalist board. It has a single PCI slot, one DIMM slot, PATA and 2 SATA connectors for storage, and the usual complement of I/O slots. The CPU runs at 1.6 GHz. Newegg sells it for about 75 bucks.

One could use this board to build a minimalist PC, but it would also work well as a cheap upgrade for an old PC. It can bolt into a case designed for an ATX or micro-ATX board. It’s made by Intel, so its quality is likely to be comparable to any board it replaces. And the board consumes about 25 watts of power.

Paired up with some sort of solid-state storage, be it a compact flash card in an adapter or a proper SATA SSD like the OCZ Core, it would be a very quiet, low-power system. Performance-wise, it wouldn’t be a barn burner, but it has more than enough horsepower for word processing, e-mail, web browsing, and other productivity apps. At 1.6 GHz, the Atom doesn’t outrun a Pentium M or even a modern Celeron at comparable clock speed, but it should outrun a sub-2 GHz P4.

I think this thing would be awesome in many business environments. Tasks that would bog it down are the kinds of things you don’t want going on in the office anyway–stuff like 3D gaming, ripping and re-encoding DVDs, stuff like that. The power it would save would be tremendous, especially when paired with an LCD monitor and an SSD.

But I even think it has a place in the server room. For example, my first employer used desktop PCs for domain controllers. The logic was simple: DCs don’t work all that hard most of the day, and by their very nature they are redundant, so if a DC were to fail, it’s not in the same league as your mail server failing. You can grab another desktop PC, stand it up as a domain controller, then start asking questions.

In 1997, when a server cost $4,000 and a desktop PC cost $1,000, this was an obvious place for a college with budget problems to save some money.

I think Intel Atoms would make great domain controllers. They have enough CPU power to do the job, but they sip power, which is increasingly important in datacenters. The PCI slot would limit the type of gigabit NIC you could install, but it should still be OK.

They’d make fine web servers too. They might get bogged down on high traffic sites, but they would have little trouble serving up most corporate intranets, and let’s face it, most people’s web sites aren’t nearly as busy as they would like to think they are. You could always use more than one and load balance them. Besides, it’s typically the database servers behind the web servers that do the heavy lifting. Serving up static web pages isn’t all that difficult of a task, and a 1.6 GHz CPU ought to be up to it.

None of these uses are what Intel had in mind when they designed the Atom–I really think their ultimate goal is to end up in cell phones and PDAs, which was why they sold off their ARM-based Xscale CPU.

But if some enterprising company (or struggling behemoth *cough* Dell *cough*) wanted to build business PCs around these, it would be an easy sell. For that matter, they could stuff two of these boards into a 1U rackmount chassis and sell it as an inexpensive, power-saving alternative to blade servers.

Call me crazy, but having actually administered blade servers, I’d much rather have a bunch of 1U systems with two computers inside the case. Besides costing a lot less money up front, they would be more reliable and consume less power while actually saving space–an HP blade enclosure gives you 16 servers in 10 Us, while my crazy scheme would give you 20 servers in the same space.

Maybe instead of posting this idea where anyone can see it and run with it, I ought to buy a couple of motherboards, take them into my basement and start bending some metal myself. Hmm…

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