Intel is putting a sharp focus on expanding its custom processor and chip operations in response to a growing trend of companies building servers in-house to meet specific workloads or data center designs.
Last year, Intel has supplied custom processors to 18 companies, most notably eBay and Facebook, said Diane Bryant, senior vice president and general manager of Intel's Datacenter and Connected Systems Group, in an interview.
"That trend is growing. In the last year we've delivered 18 custom silicon processor solutions for the full array of customers -- our direct customers, the OEMS and the end users -- in order to meet their specific needs," said Bryant, who runs Intel's most profitable group.
The growing custom processor business will supplement Intel's bread and butter server chip business, consisting of selling generic Xeon processors available in rack, tower and blade servers sold by companies like Dell and Hewlett-Packard. But server infrastructures are changing with the growing adoption of cloud computing, big data and other applications, which has translated into a growing demand for custom processors, Bryant said.
Companies like Facebook and Google with mega data centers design servers in-house, and get them made from direct server suppliers like Quanta. The barebones servers typically cut excess components and are good enough to handle the growing cloud transactions such as search requests and social networking tasks. Facebook and Google have experimented with ARM processors in servers, while Tilera processors have also been tested.
"When you work with these end users who have technology as their core business, they are very clear on what is required," Bryant said. "They know what their workloads are, what their various applications are, they know what metric they are looking to hit from a performance per total cost of ownership."
The level of processor and chip customization varies with the workload, data center design, and even cooling solutions. Bryant provided an example where a flexible cooling system in a data center would allow customers to run processors at a higher frequency.
"We will have customers that have a very [specific] power target, so we will create versions whether its through changes in frequency, changes in core count, changes to drive down the power," Bryant said.
Customers usually give information about the applications they are running, the accelerators they need, the performance and power consumption levels they are looking to hit. Intel then customizes processors and chips that meets the specifications. Some customers in the technology and the data center business get specific about the server infrastructure.
"It all boils down to scale. I had one cloud service provider who had told me a single application is running across tens of thousands of servers. You can afford to tune that server very targeted against that application and eke out every bit of performance at ever lower cost of operations," Bryant said.
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