End of Intel’s Reign

Saving Power

Keeping 97 percent of the market is very lucrative. But it is also fragile, because nothing lasts forever. Intel keeps 97 (or even 98) percent of the server processor market. It was result of brilliant strategy some time ago, when Intel decided to adopt power saving strategy, while AMD was pursuing the clock speed. So we got plenty of Intels, Intel here, Intel there, Intel everywhere (like in So What song). Saving power was good strategy. AMD is off the server processor market.

Growing Phones

During that time, outside of datacenters, smart phones and other hand held gadgets became mainstream as consumer devices. They were running on other [simpler] chips, like ARM and ARM derivatives. Multiple companies produced them. Everybody could license ARM design, add own stuff, customize it all and make own chip.

About 10 years ago, we got smartphone, equal by computing power to Apollo mission. Today our smartphones are computers that could phone, rather than phones that could compute. Mobile processors grew bigger and bigger, co-processors emerged. As result we got pretty equivalent of personal computer in small factor.

Intending to Eat the Datacenter

Why not using fat mobile processors in the datacenter, instead of more complicated and power greedy Intel ones? That was logical and somebody started to look there. Not for general use, but for high-performance computing, where GPU is not suitable (because of too small cores and memory copying inconveniences). Also for storage, especially cold storage.

Calxeda made big waves some time ago, in 2011. They designed really small servers named EnergyCore, which could be tightly packed into the 1U or 2U rack. After failing to sign a deal with HP, funding was cut, and Calxeda shut down. That sucks, because there was a need on the market (OK, there was at least logical evidence). We could have 480-core server, consisting of 120 quad-core ARM Cortex-A9 CPUs if it all didn’t flop. Most probably their processor was not jucy enough, hence declined by HP.

Eating the Datacenter

Others tried too at the same time. AppliedMicro announced X-Gene chip also back in 2011. The roadmap is long. Today we have X-Gene2, and powerful X-Gene3 which could battle Xeon E5 is scheduled to second half of 2017. Slowly but reliably it has started, ARM started to eat the datacenter with 64-bit ARMv8. Same performance at lower power consumption, and in significantly smaller factor [of the entire server].

What is coolest is SoC. All those ARMs are actually CPU plus infrastructure like memory channels, slots for disks, networking. It allowes to reduce the size of the entire server board dramatically. 1/3 of 1U rack could contain 6 ARM SoCs, each of 50-70 cores, which is equal to 300-400 processors per sled. Or almost 1,000 processors in 1U. Each core with good clock speed at 2.5GHz or so. With 2-3x less power consumption than Xeons. HP are building experimental ARM servers, not on Calxeda chips, but on AppliedMicro, check out Moonshot.

Cavium produced chips for network and storage appliances, and suddenly released jucy chip ThunderX, and jaws dropped. It was 48-core 64-bit ARMv8, with 2.5GHz clock speed. One of the biggest datacenters in the world – OVH – is running on ThunderX already. Recently Cavium redesigned it completely to ThunderX2. 54-core SoC, for high-density racks, not bad at all.

What Intel Does?

Intel builds Xeon Phi. They started from co-processor and moving to host/bootable processor, named Knights Landing. Still to be released. It should have ~260 cores, each core as small Pentium. So compatibility with Wintel era must be retained. For good or for bad? Compatibility was always burden, but it was always needed by the market. How to continue to run all those apps? SAP or Oracle or Windows may not run well on ARM today.

Intel produced less power greedy Xeon-D, especially for Facebook, Microsoft and Google needs. But it is really interesting what than Knights Landing aka KNL will be. There were some screenshots of the green screen and motherboard available. Premium equipment makers Penguin Computing announced both ThunderX and Xeon Phi support in their highly dense sleds. Check out ThunderX and Knights Landing sleds.

What should Intel do? They definitely have big plans, because spending ~$17B on Altera was well thought. Though is FPGA & IoT strategy well aligned with keeping datacenter hegemony? Good ruminations are assembled in the post by Cringely.

Aha Moment

Without Qualcomm it is difficult to tell how it all will unfold. Some companies tried and flopped, like Calxeda, and $130 millions did not help. Some unusual players came in, like Cavium, and made noticable waves. AppliedMicro decided to build own processor. Amazon bought Annapurna to build own processor for AWS cloud (for ~$370 millions). There is some uncertainty still, what Amazon already made from that acquisition.

Qualcomm made some non-technical announcements, but still have to deliver the product. From that point, ARM eating the datacenter could accelerate and go mainstream. So waiting for aha moment. It must happen by mid 2017 or sooner. It is going to be at 10nm. And it is thrilling – what comes from Qualcomm?

Who got the POWER?

I did not address POWER8 and POWER9 here, because nobody makes them except IBM themselves (though select semiconductors say on their sites they do power processors). Google experimented with POWER, RackSpace experimented with POWER. But RackSpace delayed Barreleye servers. And Google also experimented with ARMs, and were not so excited. Perhaps because that test chip was quite big and had only 24 cores.

It all points towards the ARM as new general purpose, HPC (where GPU is not applicable) and storage servers. And it all points to Qualcomm, they will be a cornerstone of datacenter revolution.


htop needs redesign, to properly display 500 processors that OS sees.




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