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Google, IBM, and others team up to hasten data transfers in computers

Agam Shah | Oct. 17, 2016
Two newly formed consortiums propose specifications to bring unprecedented boosts to data transfers inside and outside of computers

The consortium boasts big names including Samsung, Dell, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, AMD, ARM, and Micron.

Right now, computers come with memory, storage, and processors in one box. But the specification from Gen-Z -- which is focused heavily on memory and storage -- could potentially decouple all of those units into separate boxes, establishing a peer-to-peer connection between all of them.

Gen-Z is also focused on making it easier to add new types of nonvolatile memory like 3D Xpoint, which can be used as memory, storage or both. Many new types of memory technologies under research are also seen as DRAM and SSD replacements.

Larger pools of storage, memory, and processing technologies can be crammed in the dedicated boxes, and Gen-Z could be particularly useful for server installations. Gen-Z is designed to link large pools of memory and storage with processors like CPUs and GPUs in a data center, said Robert Hormuth, vice president and server chief technology officer at Dell EMC.

Having memory, storage, and processing in discrete boxes will be beneficial for applications like the SAP HANA relational database, which is dedicated to in-memory processing. Most servers max out at 48TB of DRAM, but a decoupled memory unit will give SAP HANA more RAM to operate.

But there are challenges. The decoupled units need to handshake in real time and work together on protocol support and load balancing. Those functions have been perfected in today's servers with integrated memory and storage.

To achieve that real-time goal, Gen-Z has developed a high-performance fabric that "provides a peer to peer interconnect that easily accesses large volumes of data while lowering costs and avoiding today's bottlenecks," according to the consortium. The data transfer rate can scale to 112GT/s (gigatransfers per second) between servers. For comparison, the upcoming PCI-Express 4.0 will have a transfer rate of 16 GT/s per lane inside computers, and data transfers in computers are usually faster.

Gen-Z is generally a point-to-point connector for storage and memory at the rack level, but it can be used inside server racks. Gen-Z is not intended to replace existing memory or storage buses in servers, Hormuth said.

OpenCAPI and Gen-Z claim their protocols are open for every hardware maker to adopt. However, there will be challenges in pushing these interconnects to servers.

For one, the server market is dominated by x86 chips from Intel, which isn't a member of either of the new consortia. Without support from Intel, the new protocols and interconnects could struggle.

Intel sells its own networking and fabric technology called OmniPath, and also sells silicon photonics modules, which use light and lasers to speed up data transfers and connect servers at the rack level.

 

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