Intel this week began discussing its roadmap for a so-called micro server platform based on a super-low-power version of the Atom processor that will ship in 2012. Aimed at cloud computing data centers, these new Atom processors consume less than 10 watts of electricity and will be released right behind a coming generation of "Sandy Bridge"-based iCore CPUs that consume less than 15 watts. Those chips are due in late 2011.

Intel's new chips might throw a wrench into the established wisdom about virtualization and server consolidation. But the company already has its first important customer: Facebook—no stranger to the needs of cloud computing—is already backing the platform and says it plans a large-scale deployment.

"Micro servers share infrastructure resources and are ideal for workloads where many low-power, dense servers may be more efficient than fewer, more robust servers," an Intel statement explains. "Intel will deliver four new processors for the category that \\[include\\] sub-10 watt, all with server features including 64-bit, Intel Virtualization Technology and Error-Correcting Code (ECC). Customers are already planning designs based on these processors."

Today's server-oriented Intel Xeon processors typically consume about 45 watts, to give you an idea of the dramatic improvements to be found in the coming chips. Of course, Xeon processors are aimed at mainstream server workloads, including virtualization, and outperform the coming Atom and iCore chips. But Intel says the new, more power-efficient designs are ideal for data centers where the lowest power per server and high density are required. Cloud computing is the poster child for this type of computing.

Facebook is an interesting case in that it is one of the most—if not the very most—popular web service on Earth, and yet the company has shied away from virtualization solutions in its own data centers. So it's been looking for an alternate way to save energy, and thus money, without sacrificing performance or scalability. And Intel's coming micro server architecture appears to deliver exactly what it's looking for: Facebook says that it will begin large-scale micro server deployments late this year.

Virtualization has won over many fans in the enterprise, so Facebook's aversion to this technology might be somewhat confusing. "If virtualization was the right approach \\[for us\\], we would be a virtualized environment," Facebook director Gio Coglitore said at an Intel event this week. "As you start to virtualize, the importance of that individual server is greatly enhanced, and when you have that at scale, it becomes very difficult." Virtualization, he said, makes it harder to address individual servers as faceless "foot soldiers" that can be interchanged and replaced as needed. It also creates lock-in, he added.

I wouldn't worry too much about rethinking corporate technology deployments based on Facebook's strategy, however. The social network's needs are decidedly different from that of the typical enterprise. And most corporations don't think of servers as being "disposable" after just two or three years of use, as does Facebook. Intel agrees, noting that although micro servers could ultimately seize 10 percent of the server market, they're not for everyone. "It's not going to take over the universe," Intel general manager Boyd Davis said.