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Intel expands custom chip work for big cloud providers

James Niccolai | June 19, 2014
Intel is stepping up its efforts to build custom chips for online giants like eBay and Facebook, giving them a boost in performance and, Intel hopes, another reason to keep buying its microprocessors.

The other use case takes advantage of the fact that FPGAs can be reprogrammed in the field. The service provider buys servers with the dual-chip package inside, and programs the FPGA depending on the workload they need to optimize. If their needs change later, they can reprogram the chip again.

Using FPGAs to accelerate workloads isn't new, but they're usually discrete components on the motherboard linked to the processor via PCIe. Integrating them into the chip package with Intel's QPI interconnect reduces latency and allows the FPGA to access the Xeon's on-chip cache and its main memory, Bryant said.

That doubles the performance gain that can normally be derived from the FPGA, compared to using it as a discrete component, she said.

Bryant said a handful of cloud providers are testing the FPGAs, though she wouldn't name them. She also wouldn't say whose FPGAs Intel will use, though it has a manufacturing partnership with Altera, making it a likely candidate.

It plans to begin production of the Xeon-FPGA chip packages soon, she said. They'll be socket-compatible with standard Xeons, meaning customers can use them in standard servers.

She pointed to two trends that are driving the need for custom chips: the rise of large-scale cloud applications running across huge pools of servers, and the move to a more flexible, software-defined infrastructure.

Applications are changing faster than new chips can be designed and brought to market, Bryant said. "This is a great way for the silicon to keep up with the pace of software innovation," she said.

 

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