Intel Broadens Custom Chip Efforts for Cloud Companies

Intel is integrating FPGAs with its Xeon E5 server processors to enable businesses like eBay and Facebook to more easily optimize the silicon.

Intel custom chips

Intel is making it easier for giant online businesses like Amazon, Facebook and eBay to use its powerful Xeon server processors in their massive data centers.

At the Gigaom Structure 2014 event June 18 in San Francisco, Diane Bryant, senior vice president and general manager of Intel's Data Center and Connected Systems Group, announced a program in which the giant chip maker will offer customizable Xeon processors, a move that she said will bring improved performance and enable users to better optimize the chips for their particular workloads.

The program, which calls for the integration of field-programmable gate array (FPGA) technology into the same package as the Xeon processors, is part of a larger effort underway at Intel to offer organizations a wider selection of silicon products that are more adaptable to individual workloads.

The data center is seeing a rapid transformation toward cloud computing and IT becoming the business rather than simply supporting it and that is bringing changes, according to Bryant.

"Two significant changes are the move to software defined infrastructure (SDI) and the move to scale-out, distributed applications," Bryant wrote in a post on the company blog. "The speed of application development and deployment of new services is rapid. The infrastructure must keep pace. It must move from statically configured to dynamic, from manually operated to fully automated, and from fixed function to open standard."

In the past, Intel and other chip makers would roll out new processors and sell them to system OEMs, who would then put those chips into servers and sell them to end users to use in their data centers in the manner they wanted. Businesses might have had some choices within the chips, such as how many cores or the speeds at which they ran, but for the most part, the chip Intel made is the chip they got.

That is changing. Online cloud businesses like Facebook and Google run huge data centers that are filled with massive numbers of servers running significant numbers of small workloads and they want systems that run those jobs at optimum performance and efficiency levels.

They are becoming dominant consumers of servers and other data center infrastructure and that kind of buying power carries a lot of weight. Intel is looking to optimize their chips to those workload, and last year built 15 custom processors designed to meet the needs of particular customers, such as eBay and Facebook, and there are more than twice that many products planned for 2014, Bryant said.

The integration of the FPGAs with the standard Xeon E5 processor will enable organizations to more easily program the chips to better handle particular workloads and then reprogram those chips for other jobs, according to Bryant.

"The FPGA provides our customers a programmable, high performance coherent acceleration capability to turbo-charge their critical algorithms," she wrote. "And with down-the-wire reprogrammability, the algorithms can be changed as new workloads emerge and compute demands fluctuate. Based on industry benchmarks FPGA-based accelerators can deliver [more than 10 times] performance gains. By integrating the FPGA with the Xeon processor, we estimate that customers will see an additional 2X in performance thanks to the low latency, coherent interface."

Intel has been aggressive in addressing the rapidly changing demands in the data center. Where once the chip maker would release a handful of models of each processor they released, now they can roll out two dozen or more to offer greater optimization for particular workloads. In addition, the company is leveraging its low-power Atom platform for dense microservers—and trying to fend off a challenge by ARM and its partners, which includes longtime rival Advanced Micro Devices—while introducing an even smaller and more energy-efficient Quark family for the Internet of things.

The company also is looking to gain a larger presence in the networking and storage sectors of the data center.

"As we have seen many times during our history, transformation creates both opportunities and threats," Bryant wrote. "Anyone in our industry trying to cling to the legacy world will be left behind. We see the move to cloud services and software defined infrastructure as a tremendous opportunity and we are seizing this opportunity."