Cavium later this year will enter the increasingly crowded ARM server chip space with its upcoming ThunderX family of products that will offer up to 48 cores per chip and be optimized for a variety of workloads.
Cavium officials unveiled ThunderX June 3 at the Computex 2014 show in Taiwan, saying the company not only is looking to compete against other vendors that want to leverage the ARM architecture in the data center, but also wants to challenge Intel’s dominance in the server processor space.
The bulk of chip makers looking to build systems-on-a-chip (SoCs) based on ARM’s ARMv8-A 64-bit architecture see an opportunity in the low-power microserver space, in systems designed to process massive numbers of small workloads found in Web 2.0 environments. Intel also is competing in that space with its energy-efficient x86 Atom platform—it already is on its second generation, and is planning the release of its 14nm “Denverton” SoC later this year.
However, Cavium officials said their upcoming offerings—which include custom chips based on ARM, up to 48 cores and the ability to efficiently fit into two-socket environments—will make ThunderX an option in the traditional data center space, competing against Intel’s Xeon E3 and E5 families.
“Most [businesses] are looking for a second vendor to Intel,” Gopal Hegde, vice president and general manager of Cavium’s Server Processor Group, told eWEEK. “We need to offer them a choice.”
Intel has long been the dominant chip supplier for servers, owning more than 80 percent of the market. However, trends like cloud computing, big data, mobility and social media are changing the demands being put on server makers by businesses that increasingly are valuing energy efficiency and cost-effectiveness over raw performance. They also are looking for systems that are more highly optimized for specific workloads.
ARM and partners such as Advanced Micro Devices, Applied Micro and Marvell Technologies are making inroads with server OEMs like Hewlett-Packard and Dell, which are developing systems aimed at hyperscale data center environments that run on ARM processors. Like their Cavium counterparts, officials with Applied Micro, which is developing its X-Gene 64-bit ARM server SoC product line, also have said they want their products to be alternatives to Intel’s mainstream server chips.
“We wanted to build a Xeon-class ARM” chip, Applied Micro President and CEO Paramesh Gopi told eWEEK last year.
Cavium’s Hegde said the company is looking to build out a family of ARM SoCs that offer high-performance capabilities—the cores will run at up to 2.5GHz—are optimized for workloads in such areas as compute, storage, security and networking, and can meet the rapidly changing demands brought on by such trends as the cloud, software-defined networking (SDN) and software-defined storage (SDS).
The workload optimization capabilities will be a key feature for the Cavium chips, Hegde said. Like other ARM partners, Hegde argued that the days of a single architecture that offers a small range of choices in the data center are disappearing, and that organizations are looking for systems optimized for their workloads. Intel officials also are heeding that demand. When the company launched the Xeon E7 v2 family, the lineup came with 20 different configurations that offer variations on everything from core count to frequency to memory caches so they could be optimized for particular workloads.
Cavium Intros ThunderX ARM Server Chips at Computex
Cavium’s offerings include custom processor cores, an efficient caching subsystem, high memory bandwidth and system virtualization. They also include application-specific integrated hardware accelerators and customized I/O configurations. The 280-nanometer ThunderX chips, which are compliant with ARM’s Server Base System Architecture standard—which was introduced earlier this year—will come with eight to 48 cores; four DDR3.4 72-bit memory controllers; hundreds of the hardware accelerators for security, storage, networking and virtualization applications; and virtualization capabilities via Cavium’s virtSOC technology.
Cavium will be sampling the chips with system OEMs later this year, with servers powered by the chips expected in 2015, Hegde said. The next generation will come out in 2016, and will include new cores, a new microarchitecture, next-generation I/O technology, and more accelerators, according to the company.
The first of the ThunderX chips—all with up to 48 cores and integrated virtSOC—will focus on four areas, he said. The ThunderX_CP, which will be aimed at cloud Web servers, content delivery tasks, Web caching, search and social media workloads, will come with multiple 10/40 Gigabit Ethernet and high memory bandwidth. The Thunder_ST SoCs, optimized for Hadoop and storage workloads, will also come with PCIe Gen3 ports, dual-socket coherency, and a scalable fabric for east-west and north-south traffic connectivity.
Thunder_SC is aimed at security appliances and secure Web front-end systems and will come with Cavium’s fourth-generation Nitrox and TurboDPI technology with accelerators for such security standards as IPSec and SSL, anti-malware and antivirus protection, and firewall capabilities. Thunder_NT, for media servers, scale-out embedded application and network-functions virtualization (NFV) workloads, include quality-of-service (QoS) traffic shaping, tunnel termination and bandwidth provisioning capabilities.
The ThunderX CN87xx SoCs—highly energy-efficient and cost-effective—will offer eight to 16 cores and be optimized for entry-level applications like cold storage, distributed content delivery, dedicated hosting and distributed memory caching, the company said.
Cavium also is looking to build up the ecosystem around ThunderX. According to Larry Wikelius, director of ecosystem and partner enabling for the Data Center Processor Group, ThunderX will be supported by Canonical on its Ubuntu Linux OS as well as the MontaVista Linux distribution. In addition, Gigabyte Technologies will use the chip in its servers.
To help drive adoption, Cavium also has created reference platforms.