Intel, ARM Take Competition Into HPC Arena

Intel offers a glimpse into its next-generation Xeon Phi supercomputer chips, while Applied Micro pushes its ARM-based X-Gene for HPC.

servers data center

Intel and ARM continue to grow the fields in which they compete, from mobile devices to the data center.

When ARM officials several years ago first broached the idea of using the company's low-power system-on-a-chip (SoC) architecture to challenge Intel's dominance in data center servers, the focus was on highly dense and highly energy-efficient microservers that would find their ways into the massive environments run by giant Web companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon.

However, at this week's International Supercomputing Conference (ISC) 2014 in Germany, ARM chip makers Applied Micro and Nvidia move to push the ARM architecture—which is currently found in most smartphones and tablets—into the high-performance computing (HPC) realm. Applied Micro officials said June 23 that the company's 64-bit X-Gene SoC, which boasts a custom CPU built on the ARM architecture, has the high performance, throughput and energy efficiency needed for supercomputer workloads.

At the same time, Nvidia officials said the company's GPU accelerators—used in many HPC systems to boost performance while keeping power consumption in check—support 64-bit ARM processors.

For its part, Intel is not taking its dominant position in the supercomputer space for granted. The company on June 23 unveiled new details on the upcoming next generation of its Xeon Phi supercomputer chip, which will offer three times the performance of the current Xeon Phi "Knights Corner" offering and could eventually find its way into smaller servers and possibly even mobile devices.

The upcoming Xeon Phi "Knights Landing" chip, which will begin appearing in systems in the second half of 2015, is an important step in the push toward exascale computing, according to Charles Wuischpard, vice president and general manager of workstation and high-performance computing at Intel.

"The race to exascale by the end of the decade is one of the goals we all have … in the high-performance computing market," Wuischpard said during a press briefing before the ISC opened.

Intel over the past several years has been aggressive in broadening its reach beyond the core PC and data center server spaces. It has worked to drive up the energy efficiency of its Atom SoC platform to enable it to compete with ARM processors made by the likes of Samsung and Qualcomm in smartphones and tablets, with mixed success. ARM has a dominant position in the mobile device space.

Conversely, ARM faces an uphill climb as it looks to chip away at Intel's huge share of the server chip market. ARM officials have talked about the need for greater energy efficiency in an era of mobile computing, Web 2.0 workloads and the cloud, and the desire of organizations for an alternative to x86 chips from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices.

With ARM's partners now able to leverage the chip designer's 64-bit ARMv8-A design, the push is becoming less theoretical and more practical. However, while most ARM partners are looking to offer SoCs for microservers by building their chips based on ARM's off-the-shelf CPU design, Applied Micro and others, such as Cavium, have taken their ARM license and built their own CPUs designed to compete with Intel's mainstream Xeon server chips.

Cavium earlier this month at Computex unveiled its upcoming Thunder X ARM-based server chips. "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 at the time. "We need to offer them a choice."

Applied Micro for several years has been developing its Gene-X processors. Its X-Gene 1 SoC is now shipping to system makers, while its 28-nanometer X-Gene 2 is sampling with OEMs, according to Guarav Singh, vice president of strategy for X-Gene and product lines.

At the ISC, Applied Micro is demonstrating systems powered by X-Gene, and announced that it will work with E4 Computing Engineering to develop low-power EK003 servers powered by the ARM chip. In addition, a few days before the show, Softiron announced the X-Gene-powered 64-0800 enterprise-class server motherboard.