Intel Launches Xeon D SoC for Hyperscale Data Centers

The chip maker's first Xeon SoC design for microserver, network and storage systems addresses Web-scale environments and competition from ARM.

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Intel is launching its first system-on-a-chip for the Xeon server family, a move targeting an expanding base of cloud and network service providers as well as the growing challenge presented by ARM and its chip partners in the data center.

Intel officials first talked about the low-power 14-nanometer Xeon D processors last year, and in September 2014 said the company had begun sampling the systems-on-a-chip (SoCs). They announced March 9 that the first of the chips—for systems like microservers, networking gear and storage appliances—are available now, with more coming in the second half of the year.

The new 64-bit SoCs, which are based on the chip maker's "Broadwell" architecture, bring together the compute, I/O, storage and security onto a single piece of silicon, offering the high levels of performance and power efficiency that service providers and telecommunications companies are looking for as they build out their data centers. Such businesses are looking to create infrastructures that are more agile, dynamic and cost-effective as they deal with the rising tide of rich data brought on by such trends as mobile computing, big data, the Internet of things (IoT) and the cloud.

"We're really targeting those low-power, high-density sort of use cases," Nidhi Chappell, product line manager for data center server platforms at Intel, said during a conference call with journalists prior to the launch of the Xeon D family.

The new SoCs fill a gap between Intel's traditional Xeon server chips and the low-power Atom SoCs that Intel has been developing for the low-power dense microserver space, according to Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst with Moor Insights and Strategy. It also gives Intel another tool to use to push back at ARM, whose officials see the growing demand for energy-efficient SoCs as an opportunity to gain traction in a server chip market that Intel has long dominated.

"If you're looking for a certain performance at a certain density and a certain cost, that's what Xeon D is about," Moorhead told eWEEK. "This line fits squarely between Xeon and Atom. … It will give ARM something to think about."

Intel is launching the Xeon D lineup with two SoCs, the eight-core D-1540 and quad-core D-1520. Each consumes 45 watts, two 10 Gigabit Ethernet ports, integrated Intel Virtualization Technology, Advanced Encryption Standard-New Instructions (AES-NI) technology, built-in I/Os and support for up to 128GB of memory. There's also support for error correcting code (ECC) memory, an integrated platform controller hub, and Intel's Platform Storage Extensions, which speeds up the movement of data.

The new SoCs offer up to 3.4 times the performance, 1.7 times the performance per watt and five times the network bandwidth of the Atom C2750. These first two chips are aimed at microservers; others being designed for network, storage and IoT are coming later in the year, company officials said.

Intel executives said there are more than 50 systems being designed based on the Xeon D SoCs, from such vendors as Cisco Systems, Hewlett-Packard, NEC and Quanta Cloud Technology. Seventy-five percent of the designs on the board are for network, storage and IoT systems, from entry-level storage-area network (SAN) and network-attached storage (NAS) appliances and edge routers, Intel officials said. Supermicro announced a new family of low-power, high-density servers for embedded and hyperscale workloads.

The new SoCs address a growing trend in data centers to offer more efficient systems that address specific workloads, according to Moorhead. Intel for the past couple of years has been working to address the demand for workload-optimized technology, from growing the capabilities in its Atom processors to offering more than two-dozen iterations of new Xeon chips with varying mixes of capabilities.

The growth of hyperscale and Web-scale data centers is putting greater pressure on Intel and other chip makers, as well as system OEMs, to develop infrastructure resources that are highly efficient and dense. ARM, whose low-power SoC architecture is found in most smartphones and tablets, and several chip-making partners are looking to such systems as a way into the data center. Vendors like Applied Micro, Cavium, Qualcomm and Advanced Micro Devices have launched or plan to launch 64-bit ARM-based chips that will run in such systems as HP's Moonshot server modules.

With Xeon D, Intel now offers a server SoC that comes with Xeon capabilities and more robust cores than the Atom processors, while also bringing it strong power efficiency and density capabilities, Moorhead said.