Via may seek greater role for Nano in servers

Via chips could complement main server chips to run multimedia applications, reducing energy costs

Via Technologies may try to extend the use of its Nano processors from netbooks to servers in a potential challenge to Intel and Advanced Micro Devices, although the battle will be an uphill one, analysts said.

Via introduced a new Nano-based motherboard on Thursday for multimedia servers. It is Via's first server product based on the Nano chip, and some analysts said it could mark the start of an effort by Via to expand the chip's role in servers.

The Nano consumes less power and generates less heat than most server chips, but it is also less powerful. It runs at a maximum clockspeed of 1.6GHz and is available in only a single-core edition.

But some analysts say the chip could have potential in some types of servers. Via could offer the Nano as a co-processor to offload specific server workloads and tasks, or it could group the chips together in a blade server to act as the primary computing engine.

The VB8002 Mini-ITX motherboard announced Thursday is designed for servers that deliver video and audio content to TVs, multimedia PCs and other consumer devices. The Nano works with other components on the board to execute tasks like high-definition video encoding, Via said.

Nano chips are suitable for such work because of their strong floating point capabilities, said Dan Olds, principal analyst with Gabriel Consulting Group. They could be used in other types of servers to offload multimedia tasks, allowing the primary processor to focus on other types of data-intensive work.

"It's a way for Via to get into different markets and applications. They do have something to offer in there," Olds said.

But Nano chips are primarily seen in netbooks, like Samsung's NC20, where they are used for their low power consumption. Breaking into the server market with the chips could be tough for Via, analysts said.

Via has weak ties with server makers compared to Intel and AMD, and it would have to offer a strong platform to convince server makers to use its parts, said Jim McGregor, chief technology strategist at In-Stat.

Multiple Via chips could be pooled together in a blade server, to match the performance of a general-purpose low-end or midrange server, he said. But a stack of those could easily be replaced by a single Intel server chip, he said.

In addition, Intel and AMD have been releasing lower-power versions of their own products. "There's a bunch of other chips in the 35-watt range more suited for servers," McGregor said. AMD released quad-core Opteron EE server chips last week that draw 40 watts of power, for example.

Since Nano chips are based on the x86 architecture, they could work alongside server chips from Intel and AMD to run systems applications such as server management software, McGregor said. The advantage would be their low power consumption, and potentially their lower price point.

Microsoft has shown an interest in using netbook chips to power servers in its large data centers. Its research group built an experimental server using 50 Atom-based netbook boards, according to a video it posted on YouTube. Each board has a tiny fan to keep the chip cool, but there are no large fans to cool the server racks, showing how little heat the chips produce.

A big portion of the cost in running data centers goes toward cooling and powering server equipment, and a large part of that is due to traditional server chips, said Jim Larus, director of software architecture at Microsoft, in the video. Netbook chips require less energy and cooling, which could cut costs, he said.

"They're not as powerful, so you might require many more in the data center, but since each one uses less energy, the datacenter as a whole can be more efficient and get more work done for the same amount of energy," he said.

A few vendors, including U.K.-based Tranquil PC Ltd., are selling Windows Home Server PCs running the dual-core Atom CPU, which is designed for small desktops. SingleHop, a U.S.-based server vendor, also offers Atom-based servers.

(Eric Lai of Computerworld contributed to this article.)

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