By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc. March 11, 2015
Intel announced the Xeon processor D product family, the first Xeon-based system-on-chip (SoC) solutions. Built on Intel’s 14nm process technology, the Intel Xeon processor D combines the performance and advanced intelligence of Xeon with the size and power savings of a SoC.
The Xeon processor D is designed to provide customers with enhanced intelligence and greater agility to rapidly deliver new services at a lower total cost of ownership (TCO). In addition, it will deliver server-class reliability, availability and serviceability (RAS) features in an ultra-dense, low-power device that telecommunication service providers (SPs) can use for intelligent edge networks.
According to Intel, Xeon processor D products deliver up to 3.4X faster performance per node and up to 1.7X better performance per watt compared to the Atom processor C2750. The company also noted that 4- and 8-core microserver optimized SoCs are available today, with a more comprehensive portfolio of network, storage and IoT SoCs targeted for availability in the second half of this year.
Over fifty systems utilizing Xeon processor D are currently in development with approximately 75% being network, storage and IoT designs. System providers designing microservers based on the Intel Xeon processor D family include Cisco, HP, NEC, Quanta Cloud Technology, Sugon and Supermicro.
Intel brightens the SoC market with Xeon-enabled goodness.
A fundamental issue roiling the technology industry and related markets is the massive decentralization of computing capabilities. Sometime this is referred to as the Internet of Things (IoT) and sometimes as pushing computing into the network. But in virtually every case, it involves incorporating digital intelligence into places and/or devices where little or none was before. At the same time, as associated technologies continue to evolve they have sparked interest in new forms and architectures, including so-called microservers.
SoC solutions which integrate a range of features into a minimal footprint are widely used for these applications. But the most successful products are those that balance compute performance and capabilities against maximal energy efficiency. In many cases this is an absolute necessity. If, say, the situation calls for enabling sensors in a remote weather station operated on batteries or a small solar array, power-hungry compute resources are unsustainable.
That same energy efficiency has led to these technologies being proposed for areas beyond their more common use cases. For example, sizable efforts and investments are being made to adapt the ARM chip architecture for use in microservers. Proponents claim that ARM’s notable energy efficiency gives it a marked TCO advantage in hyperscale and cloud data centers supporting tens or hundreds of thousands of servers. In fact, some rabid supporters believe ARM is positioned to become data center market leader.
What does any of this have to do with Intel’s new Xeon processor D solutions? A couple of things. First and foremost, the new chips qualify as an entirely new Intel solution family for SoC since prior to this the company promoted its Atom processors for those use cases. That is a very big deal as can be seen in the performance of the new chips which deliver better than 3X performance per node and nearly 2X better performance per watt than comparable Atom solutions.
At the same time, Xeon processor D is natively compatible with any application written for other Xeon platforms. That may not seem important to some people but it is a critical factor when comparing the new processors against alternatives like ARM.
The fact is that microprocessors are just one small part of larger, complex server ecosystems. For a new architecture to take root and grow requires the willing support of other interested players, most of whom are primarily focused on their bottom lines and need to be convinced that new entries have what it takes to support or enhance system-class workloads and performance. While initial efforts around ARM have been intriguing, most system vendors and customers are still in “wait and see” mode.
Intel’s new Xeon processor D solutions suggests that the company is not waiting to see how things shake out but is instead moving proactively to address the ARM challenge. If the company’s current situation seems oddly familiar, it should.
In 2003, Intel was challenged by AMD’s new Opteron processor which supported both 32- and 64-bit applications. Intel’s strategy at the time was to reserve 64-bit applications for its Itanium platform and support 32-bit workloads with Xeon processors. But innovations around Opteron helped AMD gain hugely in mindshare and eventually garner about a third of the x86 server market.
Unfortunately for AMD, technological errors and executive complacency provided Intel the time it needed to catch up. After the company introduced its first 64-bit compatible Xeon products in 2005, there was no looking back and Opteron’s market share drifted into the low single digits where it remains today.
The two stories aren’t perfectly analogous. After all, ARM-based servers are still in their infancy and constitute nothing like the threat to Intel that Opteron did. But by leveraging the chip architecture powering the vast majority of the world’s servers into a SoC form, and also handily surpassing its own Atom solutions along the way, Intel has made life considerably harder for ARM cheerleaders while at the same time opening a host of new market opportunities.
Overall, Intel’s new Xeon processor D solutions mark a significant step for both Intel and the larger IT industry. They qualify as a notable achievement for Intel by extending the company’s well-established Xeon server solutions and its 14nm processes into the SoC space. But as computing capabilities continue to decentralize and digital intelligence moves increasingly into the network, notably energy efficient SoC solutions featuring Xeon-class features will benefit a wide variety of customers, including telecommunications and cloud service providers, businesses hoping to benefit from IoT solutions and budding players in the microserver space.
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