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Intel looks to build ultra-efficient mobile chips Apple cant ignore

English: Paul Otellini, CEO of Intel
Paul Otellini, CEO of Intel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

During Intels annual investor day on Thursday, CEO Paul Otellini outlined the companys plan to leverage its multi-billion-dollar chip fabrication plants, thousands of developers and industry sway to catch up in the lucrative mobile device sector, reports Forbes.

via Intel looks to build ultra-efficient mobile chips Apple cant ignore (Apple Insider)

But what you are seeing is a form of Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) being spread about to sow the seeds of mobile Intel processors sales. The doubt is not as obvious as questioning the performance of ARM chips, or the ability of manufacturers like Samsung to meet their volume targets and reject rates for each new mobile chip. No it’s more subtle than that and only noticeable to people who know details like what design rule Intel is currently using versus that which is used by Samsung or TSMC (Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp.) Intel is currently just releasing its next gen 22nm chips as companies like Samsung are still trying to recoup their investment in 45nm and 32nm production lines. Apple is just now beginning to sample some 32nm chips from Samsung in iPad 2 and Apple TV products. It’s current flagship model iPad/iPhone both use a 45nm chip produced by Samsung. Intel is trying to say that the old generation technology while good doesn’t have the weight and just massive investment in the next generation chip technology. The new chips will be smaller, energy efficient, less expensive all the things need to make higher profit on consumer devices using them. However, Intel doesn’t do ARM chips, it has Atom and that is the one thing that has hampered any big design wins in cellphone or tablet designs to date. At any narrow size of the design rule, ARM chips almost always use less power than a comparably sized Atom chip from Intel. So whether it’s really an attempt to spread FUD, can easily be debated one way or another. But the message is clear, Intel is trying to fight back against ARM. Why? Let’s turn back the clock to March of this year in a previous article also appearing in Apple Insider:

Apple could be top mobile processor maker by end of 2012 (Apple Insider, March 20, 2012)

This article is referenced in the original article quoted at the top of the page. And it points out why Intel is trying to get Apple to take notice of its own mobile chip commitments. Apple designs its own chips and has the manufacturing contracted out to a foundry. To date Samsung has been the sole source of the A-processors used in iPhones/iPod/iPad devices as Apple is trying to get TSMC up to speed to get a second source. Meanwhile sales of the Apple devices continues to grow handsomely in spite of these supply limits. More important to Intel is the blistering growth in spite of being on older foundry technology and design rules. Intel has a technological and investment advantage over Samsung now. They do not have a chip however that is BETTER than Apple’s in house designed ARM chip. That’s why the underlying message for Intel is that it has to make it’s Atom chip so much better than an A4, A5, A5X at ANY design ruling that Apple cannot ignore Intel’s superior design and manufacturing capability. Apple will still use Intel chips, but not in its flagship products until Intel achieves that much greater level of technical capability and sophistication in its Mobile microprocessors.

Twin-track development plan for Intel’s expansion into smartphones (The Register, May 11, 2012)

Intel is planning a two-pronged attack on the smartphone and tablet markets, with dual Atom lines going down to 14 nanometers and Android providing the special sauce to spur sales. 

Lastly, Ian Thomson from The Register weighs in looking at what the underlying message from Intel really is. It’s all about the future of microprocessors for the consumer market. However the emphasis in this article is that Android OS devices whether they be phones or tablets or netbooks will be the way to compete AGAINST Apple. But again it’s not Apple as such it’s the microprocessor Apple is using in it’s best selling devices that scares Intel the most. Intel has since its inception been geared towards the ‘mainstream’ market selling into Enterprises and the Consumer area for years. It has milked the desktop PC revolution as it helped create it more or less starting with its forays into integrated micro-processor chips and chipsets. It reminds me a little of the old steel plants that existed in the U.S. during the 1970s as Japan was building NEW steel plants that used a much more energy efficient design, and a steel making technology that created  a higher quality product. So less expensive higher quality steel was only possible by creating brand new steel plants. But the old line U.S. plants couldn’t justify the expense and so just wrapped up and shutdown operations all over the place. Intel while it is able to make that type of investment in newer technology is still not able to create the energy saving mobile processor that will out perform an ARM core cpu.

cloud computers data center google technology

How Google Spawned The 384-Chip Server | Wired Enterprise |

SeaMicro’s latest server includes 384 Intel Atom chips, and each chip has two “cores,” which are essentially processors unto themselves. This means the machine can handle 768 tasks at once, and if you’re running software suited to this massively parallel setup, you can indeed save power and space.

via How Google Spawned The 384-Chip Server | Wired Enterprise |

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Great article from on SeaMicro and the two principle minds behind its formation. Both of these fellows were quite impressed with Google’s data center infrastructure at the points in time when they both got to visit a Google Data Center. But rather than just sit back and gawk, they decided to take action and borrow, nay steal some of those interesting ideas the Google Engineers adopted early on. However, the typical naysayers pull a page out of the Google white paper arguing against SeaMicro and the large number of smaller, lower-powered cores they use in the SM-10000 product.

SeaMicro SM10000
Image by via Flickr

But nothing speaks of success more than product sales and SeaMicro is selling it’s product into data centers. While they may not achieve the level of commerce reached by Apple Inc., it’s a good start. What still needs to be done is more benchmarks and real world comparisons that reproduce or negate the results of Google’s whitepaper promoting their choice of off the shelf commodity Intel chips. Google is adamant that higher clock speed ‘server’ chips attached to single motherboards connected to one another in large quantity is the best way to go. However, the two guys who started SeaMicro insist that while Google’s choice for itself makes perfect sense, NO ONE else is quite like Google in their compute infrastructure requirements. Nobody has such a large enterprise or the scale Google requires (except for maybe Facebook, and possibly Amazon). So maybe there is a market at the middle and lower end of the data center owner’s market? Every data center’s needs will be different especially when it comes to available space, available power and cooling restrictions for a given application. And SeaMicro might be the secret weapon for shops constrained by all three: power/cooling/space.

*UPDATE: Just saw this flash through my Google Reader blogroll this past Wednesday, Seamicro is now selling an Intel Xeon based server. I guess the market for larger numbers of lower power chips just isn’t strong enough to sustain a business. Sadly this makes all the wonder and speculation surrounding the SM10000 seem kinda moot now. But hopefully there’s enough intellectual property rights and patents in the original design to keep the idea going for a while. Seamicro does have quite a headstart over competitors like Tilera, Calxeda and Applied Micro. And if they can help finance further developments of Atom based servers by selling a few Xeons along the way, all the better.

cloud computers data center technology

Quanta crams 512 cores into pizza box server • The Register

Image representing Tilera as depicted in Crunc...
Image via CrunchBase

Two of these boards are placed side-by-side in the chassis and stacked two high, for a total of eight server nodes. Eight nodes at 64 cores each gives you 512 total cores in a 2U chassis. The server boards slide out on individual trays and share two 1,100 watt power supplies that are stacked on top of each other and that are put in the center of the chassis. Each node has three SATA II ports and can have three 2.5-inch drives allocated to it; the chassis holds two dozen drives, mounted in the front and hot pluggable.

via Quanta crams 512 cores into pizza box server • The Register.

Amazing how power efficient Tilera has made it’s shipping products as Quanta has jammed 512 cores into a 2 Rack Unit high box. Roughly this is 20% the size of the SeaMicro SM-10000 based on Intel Atom cpus. Now that there’s a shipping product, I would like to see benchmarks or comparisons made on similar workloads using both sets of hardware. Numerically speaking it will be an apples-to-apples comparison. But each of these products is unique and are going to be difficult to judge in the coming year.

First off, Intel Atom is an x86 compatible low power chip that helped launch the Asus/Acer netbook revolution (which until the iPad killed it was a big deal). However Quanta in order to get higher density on its hardware has chosen a different CPU than the Intel Atom (as used by SeaMicro). Instead Quanta is the primary customer for a new innovated chip company we have covered on previously: Tilera. For those who have not been following the press releases from the company Tilera is a spin-off of an MIT research project in chip-scale networking. The idea was to create very simplified systems on a chip (whole computers scaled down to single chip) and then network them together all the same slice of silicon die. The speeds would be faster due to most of the physical interfaces and buses being contained directly on the chip circuits instead of externally on the computer’s motherboard. The promise of the Tilera chip is you can scaled up on the silicon wafer as opposed to the racks and racks of equipment within the datacenter. Performance of the Tilera chip has been somewhat a secret, no benchmarks or real comparisons to commercially shipping CPUs have been performed. But the feeling generally is any single core within a Tilera chip should be about as capable as the processor in your smartphone, and every bit as power efficient. Tilera has been planning to scale up to 100 cpus eventually within one single processor die and appears to have scaled up to 64 on its most recent research chips (far from being commercially produced at this point.)

I suspect both SeaMicro and Quanta will have their own custom OSes which run as a central supervisor allowing the administrators to install and sets up instances of their  favorite workhorse OSes. Each OS instance will be doled out to an available CPU core and then be linked up to a virtual network and virtual storage interface. Boom! You got a web server, file server, rendering station, streaming server, whatever you need in one fell swoop. And it is all bound together with two 1,100 watt power supplies in each 2 Rack Unit sized box. I don’t know how that compares to the SeaMicro power supply, but I imagine it is likely smaller per core than the SM-10000. Which can only mean in the war for data power efficiency Quanta might deliver to market a huge shot across the bow of SeaMicro. All I can say is let the games begin, let the market determine the winner.

computers data center technology

SeaMicro drops 64-bit Atom bomb server • The Register

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The base configuration of the original SM10000 came with 512 cores, 1 TB of memory, and a few disks; it was available at the end of July last year and cost $139,000. The new SM10000-64 uses the N570 processors, for a total of 256 chips but 512 cores, the same 1 TB of memory, eight 500 GB disks, and eight Gigabit Ethernet uplinks, for $148,000. Because there are half as many chipsets on the new box compared to the old one, it burns about 18 percent less power, too, when configured and doing real work.

via SeaMicro drops 64-bit Atom bomb server • The Register.

I don’t want to claim that Seamicro is taking a page out of the Apple playbook, but keeping your name in the Technology News press is always a good thing. I have to say it is a blistering turnaround time to release a second system board for the SM10000 server so quickly. And knowing they do have some sales to back up the need for further development makes me thing this company really could make a  go of it. 512 CPU cores in a 10U rack is still a record of some sort and I hope to see one day Seamicro publish some white papers and testimonials from their current customers to see what killer application this machine has in the data center.