Intel chases hyperscale datacentres with FPGA bolt-on

Intel's latest move to make it easier for web and cloud giants to customise their infrastructure to their hyperscale workloads sees it introduce reconfigurable silicon.

Intel says that FPGAs can achieve 10 times the performance of CPUs. Image: Intel

As web giants such as Google and Facebook customise their huge IT estates to drive down running costs, Intel is trying to meet their needs by making its chips more flexible.

Its latest step is to marry its x86 Xeon processors with a field programmable gate array (FPGA), a chip whose core logic is reconfigurable using software.

Because the logic of an FPGA can be tailored to the demands of specific computing workloads — for instance, certain search query or video processing tasks — it can carry out these workloads more efficiently than a general purpose CPU. Intel cites benchmarks showing that FPGAs can achieve 10 times the performance of CPUs for specific tasks.

The FPGA will be combined with the Xeon in a single package that will fit into a standard E5 socket, and the processors will be linked via an Intel Quick Path Interconnect. Organisations can then customise the FPGA's logic to handle specific workloads, and if the demands of that workload change then they can reconfigure the logic of the FPGA accordingly.

FPGAs are already used within datacentres but more commonly as discrete devices connected via PCI Express, rather than packaged together with a CPU as Intel is proposing. The FPGA will have access to the CPU's cache hierarchy and according to Intel will be capable of two times the performance of discrete FPGAs.

Microsoft announced earlier this week that it had been experimenting with FPGAs in its datacentres , and found the configurable chips to be 40 times faster than a CPU at handling certain custom algorithms used by Bing search.

Where a company requires large numbers of chips with logic tailored to specific workloads they will often use application specific integrated circuits (ASICs), which can be cheaper and more efficient than FPGAs in volume.

There's no word from Intel on cost or specifications of the FPGAs, but Intel already produces devices that incorporate Altera's Stratix 10 FPGAs.

Intel already supplies chips customised to the computing needs of its largest customers, and the company delivered 15 custom products last year for customers including eBay and Facebook.

Diane Bryant, general manager of Intel's datacentre group, told the Gigaom Structure conference in San Francisco yesterday that this custom architecture would help satisfy "the move to scale-out, distributed applications".

The shift is being driven by cloud software providers and companies with large web presences which are building computing architectures suited to performing identical workloads on a huge scale.

Intel's announcement comes ahead of the release of 64-bit ARM-based chipsets aimed at providing a low power alternative to Intel's x86 CPUs in the datacentre, with AMD planning to make its ARM Cortex A57-based Opteron A1100 available this year.

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