Could Atom-based Servers Save Energy?

Green technology has generated a lot of buzz lately. Regardless of your views of global warming and going green, we can all agree there are financial benefits to products that require less energy to run. Realizing a lot of energy is wasted on idling servers, Microsoft has revealed a new research and development project named Marlowe. This project is looking into more efficient ways of turning servers on and off throughout the course of a day.

Through its research, Microsoft has found servers typically process more requests in the morning when people are catching up on their email, firing up programs, and surfing the Internet. The servers hit a quieter period later in the day and occasionally pick up again when people return home to use their computers for entertainment.

Despite variations in demand, the servers that respond to these requests are usually powered up and ready for action, consuming plenty of energy whether they’re in use or not. For companies such as Microsoft who operate tens of thousands of servers, the power consumption of those servers ads up to a hefty energy bill.


Through Marlowe, Microsoft has created a prototype server that uses Intel’s Atom chip, the same one you’ll find in ultra-portable computing devices like netbooks. These chips are made to consume less power. In fact, they consume about one-tenth as much power as a regular Xeon server chip from Intel. The computer boards based on the Atom chip cost less, too (about $70 versus $1,000.) The downside is the Atom chips can only perform about one-fourth the amount of work in a given period of time as the Xeon chips.

In an attempt to find a balance between the two chips, Microsoft is exploring the trade-offs of using a large number of Atom chips that could handle an equivalent amount of work done by Xeon chips. This concept isn’t new—RLX showed servers running on laptop chips about ten years ago. However, Microsoft’s research is different in that it has added sophisticated learning software to the Atom-based servers. This software tracks how search requests are handled on Microsoft Live over the course of a day.

When this software senses a decrease in action, it can put servers into sleep or hibernate modes to save energy. A server in these lower power modes consumes 2 to 4 watts compared to a working server which requires 28 to 37 watts. The software can also anticipate active periods and will wake the servers ahead of the upcoming usage spike. The servers typically require about 5 to 45 seconds to be ready for use.

Microsoft’s research also demonstrates capabilities to handle unexpected spikes in requests. The software can sense an unusual event starting and turn the servers on in anticipation of increased use.

Whether the Marlowe project will succeed in reducing the amount of energy that is currently wasted by idling servers is yet to be seen, but it’s an interesting concept and a creative way to use the Atom processor.