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How Intel plans to change servers as it breaks away from PCs

Agam Shah | June 7, 2016
Intel is changing the way it approaches server installations with new chip, storage, memory, and interconnect technologies.

After delays, Intel has said it will ship modules to implement silicon photonics later this year.

Xeon chips will always be important to Intel, but the chipmaker is also looking at speedy co-processors called FPGAs to quickly perform specific tasks. Intel believes a killer combination of CPUs and FPGAs, which can be easily reprogrammed, could speed up a wide range of workloads.

FPGAs are already being used by Microsoft to speed up the delivery of Bing search results, and by Baidu for faster image search. Intel believes FPGAs are relevant for artificial intelligence and machine learning tasks. Intel also plans to use FPGAs in cars, robots, drones, and IoT devices.

Intel acquired FPGA technology through the US$16.7 billion purchase of Altera last year. The company's next step is to pack an FPGA alongside its Xeon E5-2600 v4 server processor on a modular chip. Ultimately, FPGAs will be integrated on server chips, though Intel hasn't provided a timeline.

Intel is also developing a new type of storage and memory called 3D Xpoint, which the chipmaker claims is 10 times denser than DRAM, and 1,000 times faster and more durable than flash storage. Krzanich described 3D Xpoint as being a "hybrid between memory and storage." The technology will first come to gaming PCs under Optane-branded SSDs, but will branch out to servers in the form of flash storage and DRAM modules.

The emerging technologies from Intel may require companies to change their server architectures from top to bottom. But as long as the servers deliver cost-performance benefits, the technologies will be adopted, Krzanich said.

Intel hasn't yet provided a cost estimate for the investment, and it hasn't described how racks infused with new technologies could be implemented alongside existing server installations. Intel will continue selling regular server CPUs, but it may take time for customers to adopt the new technologies until they are proven. 

Intel held a 99.2 market share for server processors in 2015, but that may fall next year as AMD releases new server chips and the adoption of ARM servers potentially grows.

 

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