SeaMicro: More Than Just Low-Power Servers

Stealthy startup SeaMicro isn’t saying much about its technology, which aims to “revolutionize the data center landscape” by slashing the power used in IT operations. The company recently got a $9.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to further its development of technology to make data centers more energy efficient.

The initial buzz around SeaMicro has focused on its plans to build powerful multi-core servers using Intel’s low-power Atom chips, whose energy efficiency has made them the processor of choice for many mobile phones and laptops. The DOE grant mentions its plans to use hundreds of low-power processors in a design that could “save 75% of the computing energy over conventional servers.”

“The integrated hardware and software design project ensures that the energy consumed within the server is efficiently used regardless of whether the CPUs are hard at work or in ‘sleep’ mode,” the DOE notes in its description of the project.

‘Complex Datacenter Appliance’
But SeaMicro’s secret sauce extends beyond the server. The company remains in stealth mode, but says in job postings that it is building a “complex datacenter appliance.” A review of the company’s patent filings reveal plans for a interconnection fabric that will knit together servers, storage and peripherals using hardware-based virtualization.

The inventors cited in the patents are SeaMicro CTO Gary Lauterbach and founder/vice president Anil Rao. Lauterbach was previously a key researcher at AMD , while Rao held product marketing posts at networking vendors Juniper Networks and Force 10.

Patent Cites Interconnection Fabric
What exactly is SeaMicro building? Here’s an excerpt from a patent application filed in Dec. 2008:

The inventors have realized that an interconnect fabric can be inserted between processors and main memory, and peripheral devices. An interconnect interface device connects each processor and its main memory to the interconnect fabric, while a device manager connects a remote peripheral bus to the interconnect fabric. The remote peripheral bus can connect to Ethernet cards, hard disks, BIOS, and consoles. The processors may share the peripheral devices on the remote peripheral bus.

The remote peripheral are transparently virtualized by the hardware of the interconnect device and device manager, and can be remotely shared using the interconnect fabric. Since hardware devices connect through the interconnect fabric, virtualization is transparent to software and the operating systems.

SeaMicro expands on the uses of its technology in a subsequent patent application from August 2009:

The inventors have realized that the direct interconnect fabric disclosed in the parent application can be useful for more than just virtualization of peripherals. The direct interconnect fabric can also be used to perform switching functions in a data center. Performing these switching functions in the direct interconnect fabric can flatten the hierarchy in a data center, reducing the number of LAN switches required. Specialized aggregated chassis of several different types can be replaced by a dis-aggregated chassis that includes both compute nodes and storage nodes along with the switching functions performed by the direct interconnect fabric.

SeaMicro was started in July 2007 and got funded in December 2007. The Santa Clara, Calif. company is backed by well-known names in the Silicon Valley venture capital community, including Khosla Ventures, Draper Fisher Jurvetson and Crosslink Capital.

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About the Author

Rich Miller is the founder and editor at large of Data Center Knowledge, and has been reporting on the data center sector since 2000. He has tracked the growing impact of high-density computing on the power and cooling of data centers, and the resulting push for improved energy efficiency in these facilities.

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