Intel and Advanced Micro Devices, already seeing manufacturers of ARM-based processors taking aim at the server space currently dominated by x86-based systems, may soon have another competitor in the field: China.
According to a recent report in the Chinese news service People's Daily Online, thecountry's Tianhe-1A, currently at the top of the Top500 list of the world's fastest supercomputers, may be the last system built in that country using outside processors. The massive Tianhe-1A system uses 186,368 Xeon X5670 chips from Intel and more than 2,000 Tesla graphics cores, and reaches a peak performance of 4.7 petaflops (thousand trillion floating point operations per second).
Chinese scientists currently are working to build the Dawning 6000, its next supercomputer, which will use 10,000 home-grown Loongson CPUs to reach about 1 petaflop of peak performance, according to areport in HPCwire.com. That system is expected to launch by the end of the year. Loongson chips also are known as Godson processors.
According to Chinese officials quoted in the People's Online Daily article, the goal is that by the end of the year, the country will stop using foreign processors in its supercomputers and rely solely on China-manufactured chips. According to the report, the Institute of Computing Technology of CAS, the Jiangnan Institute of Computing Technology and the National University of Defense Technology all are expected to be build Loongson-based systems in 2011.
According to reports, Chinese officials for several years have been vocal about their desire to build their own processors and to stop having to rely on those from the likes of Intel, AMD and Nvidia.
"Like a country's industry cannot always depend on foreign steel and oil, China's information industry needs its own CPU," Hu Weiwu, the lead architect for Loongson microprocessors, said in the People's Daily Online report.
That said, it could be awhile before foreign processors are completely removed from Chinese systems. According to the report, it will be another 10 years before Chinese-built CPUs can meet the needs of the domestic market. However, according to Hu Weiwu, China eventually wants to compete with the dominant chip players of today.
"Hopefully after two decades, we will be able to sell our China-made CPUs to the U.S. just like we are selling clothes and shoes," he said.
According to a report on HotHardware.com, the Loongson chips that will be used in the Dawning 6000 will offer four cores in a 10-watt power envelope. Eventually, the chip family will include eight-core CPUs with a 20-watt envelope.
China's ambitions could be seen as yet another threat to the traditional server market, of which Intel controls more than 80 percent, followed distantly by AMD. However, as Intel looks to grow its reach beyond its traditional silicon business, and as cloud computing and mobile devices change the computing landscape, Intel and AMD are seeing a host of new challengers, including from ARM-based chip designers.
ARM officials, whose designs power most mobile devices, including smartphones and tablets, are building in more enterprise-level features with the idea of becoming players in the data center. A number of chip makers, including Marvell, Nvidia and Calxeda, are looking to build ARM-based server processors for such areas as cloud computing and Web serving, where performance, energy efficiency and space savings are crucial.
During a Webcast meeting with investors March 15 to discuss Intel's acquisition of security software maker McAfee, Renee James, senior vice president and general manager of Intel's Software and Services Group, said the company recognizes the intent of ARM and its partners, but said Intel enjoys the ability to interoperate with a wide range of devices and operating systems, something that ARM may not see in its move into the data center.
"ARM is no one thing," James said. "They are not always compatible."
ARM technology on chips from Texas Instruments may not be the same thing as ARM on Samsung chips, which could lead to compatibility issues, she said.