Advanced Computing in the Age of AI | Saturday, December 3, 2022

Lopoco: Low-Powered Servers Are Both Good Enough And Better 

Andrew Sharp didn't necessarily want to be back in the server business after a decade-long hiatus. But when Sharp went to buy a server for his home office, he was shocked at the inefficiency, in terms of power usage and processor overcapacity, in the general purpose X86 systems from the top-tier vendors like Hewlett-Packard, Dell, and IBM.

And so he and a couple of engineering buddies decided to form Lopoco to peddle low-powered, right-sized machines.

"It is not even a secret that the server makers are not trying to make efficient machines," says Sharp. "If they were, Facebook and Google would not be making their own."

Sharp makes a valid point. But those companies, as well as those who are adopting the Open Compute Project designs championed by Facebook, are also looking to cut all the margin they can out of the server racket to try to get the lowest price possible for their infrastructure. That's how they make their margins.

Still, Lopoco, which just came out of stealth mode in August, is taking a stand and that is the sort of thing that EnterpriseTech respects and supports. Sharp says that many workloads simply do not need the core densities that Intel and Advanced Micro Devices are cramming onto a single die and that the better option for a lot of workloads is to reduce the power draw and cooling costs by using low-powered variants of X86 processors. This is precisely what the initial machines in the Lopoco product line do.

lopoco-rack-serverThe company has one microserver based on Intel's Atom D525 processor, which is not suitable for many enterprise workloads. But the two rack servers based on the low-voltage versions of the four-core Xeon E3-1220L v2 and the eight-core Xeon E3-1260L chips for single-socket machines certainly are, and so is the two-socket rack server based on the new Intel Xeon E5-2630L v2 processor.

Here's how the math works according to Sharp. Assume from the get-go that you have a workload that can either run on a modestly powered Xeon chip (such as dedicated Web hosting) or can be distributed across many nodes (Web application serving, NoSQL data stores, and Hadoop fall into this category). At a typical co-location facility, if you want a dozen racks of compute, they will bring you in 12.5 kilowatts to each rack with 208 volt power at 30 amps. You will cram 20 server enclosures into the rack, with two half-width nodes per machine and 12 TB of disk per server. But, because of cooling issues you will have to leave half of the rack empty, and that will give you only 240 cores per rack and 2,880 cores across a dozen racks. Renting the space and power in the co-location facility will cost about $24,000 per month.

Now switch to low-powered Xeon E3 server nodes. The racks only need 4.4 kilowatts of power, and you can bring in 100 volt lines at 40 amps to get it. (This is more efficient.) You can fill the rack with 42 machines, leaving no empty space, and get the same 12 TB of disk capacity per server. You can get 336 cores in a rack and that means you only need eight racks to get 2,688 cores. That is more or less the same performance as the dozen half-filled racks, and the co-location fees for the rack space and the power will only cost $8,000 per month.

Lopoco is using three contract manufacturers in Silicon Valley to build its machines, and one of them has large-scale operations in Asia that will allow it to ramp up production fast. As the business ramps, Sharp says that the company will do more sophisticated system designs, but did not elaborate on precisely what that means. The company has already scored its first eight customers in the past month, and is only getting started.

The main thing is that Lopoco's launch should remind enterprises to take a hard look at the servers they buy. If the hyperscale data center operators have taught us anything, companies should only buy – or make – a machine that fits the workload. With the operating expenses for data centers now outstripping the cost of the IT gear itself, over-provisioning is an annoying cost on the capital expense budget but it is a huge cost on the operating expense budget.

One Response to Lopoco: Low-Powered Servers Are Both Good Enough And Better

  1. Alvaro Fernandez says:

    I’m surprised there’s no use of the lower core count AMD bulldozer or steamroller chips. There are pretty low power usage chips available in the AMD SKUs too…

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