The Data Center Gets a New Challenger

Article By : Brian Santo

The company has a new 80-core Arm-based processor aimed at the data center server market.

Startup Ampere Computing said it is shipping an Arm-based, 80-core processor, a chip it is positioning as the world’s first “cloud-native” processor. Called the Altra, it was designed to process the workloads that are typically handled in the cloud, while also drawing significantly less power than the average CPU.

Which is to say, less power than the average x86-based processor. Intel’s processors for data center servers are both powerful and flexible, characteristics that earned the company a thoroughly dominant market share in the data center server market.

Many believe those same characteristics will inevitably become weaknesses, however. As data center workloads become more specialized, it is expected that data centers will be able to make good use of more processors designed specifically for the kinds of workloads that data centers handle, and as those workloads proliferate, it would be useful — if not flat-out necessary — for data center processors to become more power-efficient as well.

Jeff Wittich

Other processor companies have attempted to break Intel’s stranglehold on the data center server market, many also with Arm-based solutions. That includes Ampere itself (see “Ampere Ships Arm-Based Server SoC to Lenovo.”). The nominal advantage with the Arm architecture is that it is inherently more power-efficient than the x86 architecture. They’ve all failed. Intel still accounts for well over 90 percent of the data center server market (AMD has most of what’s left).

If anyone knows the possible vulnerabilities of Intel processors, however, it’s Intel — and it is not a coincidence that Ampere was founded by executives who were once prominent Intel insiders. The company’s founder and CEO is Renee James, a long-time Intel veteran who served as the company’s president from 2013 to 2016. Ampere’s CTO, Atiq Bajwa, once led Intel’s architecture design operations. Rohit Vidwan, Ampere’s EVP of engineering, is an Intel designer who worked on the Xeon and Atom processor lines.

The company was formed to take on Intel in the data center, and the new Altra processor is the result. Altra can scale up to 80 cores — Ampere says it is “the industry’s first 80-core server CPU.”

It might be the first 80-core server CPU, but it’s not the first 80-core CPU. Intel itself has experimented with an 80-core chip, and Dell and Google (among others) have produced CPUs with as many as 96 cores. AMD has a version of its Epyc for scientific workstations with 128 cores. Still, Ampere seems to have bragging rights in the commercial server CPU market.

The Altra’s cores are based on Arm’s Neoverse N1 platform, a 64-bit core. Ampere senior vice president of products Jeff Wittich (also ex-Intel) told EE Times that in terms of features, they have “everything in Arm v8.2, plus features from beyond v8.2.”

The cores are all single-threaded. “With multithread, each thread can be interrupted, and that’s not good for consistent performance,” Wittich said.

Bajwa in a statement explained that “CSPs strive to deliver reliable, sustained performance and high levels of isolation and security to each customer, irrespective of what other tenants may be running in multi-tenant environments.

Altra is based on PCIe Gen4 and uses DDR4 high bandwidth memory. It has an open architecture so that it can be more easily integrated with other components. Depending on the configuration, Altra scales up to 210W for hyperscale data centers. Ampere said Altra was developed and manufactured on TSMC’s N7 (7 nanometer) process technology.

So if other companies have tried to take on Intel in the data center by relying on Arm and failed, why is Ampere going to be any more successful?

“These aren’t the wimpy client devices from before,” Wittich said. “The processing power is there, the middleware, the operating system – it’s all there. Also, with TSMC, we have a great partner with 7-nanometer technology leadership. Before, if you had the design but it was made on an old process, you’d squander your advantage.

“We wanted to go with RISC – RISC is just more efficient,” Wittich continued. “We could have gone RISC-V, or one of the others, but Arm has a huge ecosystem and extensive support, so it’s just a no-brainer. With Arm we can optimize things, instead of spending our time trying to fill in the gaps,” which Ampere would have had to do with some other RISC-based core.

Ampere also expects that the power advantage is also likely to become much more relevant relatively soon. Power consumption is already a major constraint in data center design. Ampere quoted figures that data centers are currently using 3 percent of the world’s electricity, a figure he’s said has held steady for a few years. But as the Internet of things ramps up in earnest, data center consumption is projected to grow to 11 percent of the total by 2030.

Simply scaling up existing power-hungry CPUs is not the answer to address the need for more compute to feed the data explosion, the company said.

Wittich noted that while each hyperscale data center represents literally hundreds of thousands of processors, the trend toward edge computing is inexorable and processing power is going to end up spreading out all through the network. Altra processors will scale up and down, and therefore will be appropriate for use in just about every network node short of end devices and sensors, including base stations, regional data centers, POPs, and more.

Ampere’s Altra processor-based Mt. Jade platform provides 160 processor cores, in a dual socket configuration. It is aimed at workloads such as data analytics, database, web-tier and Android-in-the-Cloud. (Source: Ampere Computing)


One other selling point, Wittich said, is that Ampere is promising a clear roadmap for successive generations of server processors, with one new generation every year. The next one, code-named Mystique, will drop into same platform, he said, but with more cores and better performance.

A year after that will come Siryn, which Wittich said will have even more cores, more performance, “and new platform features the market will be ready for.” The company can add cores while remaining at the 7nm node, and then go to 5 nm and get another performance boost.

From there, the company will figure it successive improvements, which might come from any number of possible advanced technologies, including the use of DDR5 memory, architecting the processor using chiplets, adding accelators. “Things that are on accelerators now ought to stay on accelerators for a while,” Wittich said.

“Look, in the near term Intel won’t become a minority player; I know the value of incumbency,” Wittich said, “but there is opportunity to go in and win share. There are new services coming, and we are very forward looking. We’re doing things differently, being cloud-native, building in cloud features, and it all gives us a long-term path.”

Ampere Altra is already shipping samples to customers around the world, including many of the top cloud service providers with both 2-socket and 1-socket platforms available, the company said. The ramp to production is scheduled for sometime in the middle of this year. The company did not identify the customers, but it might be noteworthy that it secured testimonials from Microsoft Azure, Oracle, VMware, Canonical and others.

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