Tilera targets Intel, ARM with 36-core server chip

Tilera claims its 36-core chip outperforms Intel's Sandy Bridge chips in performance-per-watt

Tilera on Monday announced availability of its new 36-core processor, which the company says can trump traditional x86 server chips from Intel in performance-per-watt.

The Tile-GX36 is designed for use in servers that handle large volumes of Internet transactions, the company said. The processor helps reduce power and cooling costs in data centers while swiftly executing social media, search and multimedia streaming transactions.

The Tile-GX36 chip will initially ship at clock speeds of 1.2GHz, and draws up to 24 watts of power. The chip can run more operations per clock cycle while drawing less power than some power-hungry Intel Xeon server chips, said Bob Doud, director of marketing.

The Tilera chip has attributes of a general-purpose CPU as it can run the Linux OS and applications commonly used to serve web data. The fast throughput chip has fewer parallelized cores but is faster than Tilera's 64-core predecessor chip, which shipped a few years ago. A 2U server with eight 36-core chips will draw roughly 400 watts of power, the same as eight Tilera 64-core chips in the box.

"A Gx36 is running at a much higher clock speed ... and with a lot more cache it cranks out more work per core, so we end up seeing higher net performance with a 36-core chip," Doud said.

It's hard to make an apples-to-apples comparison as chip architectures have their own attributes, analysts said. Low-power processors from ARM and Tilera could be beneficial for fast-moving cloud transactions, while the dominant x86 chips are proven and can handle resource-heavy applications like databases.

Internet transactions are usually processed and served through data centers, and there is growing interest in low-power servers as companies look to cut data-center costs. Tilera chips are already being tested in some servers, and early adopters Hewlett-Packard and chip maker Nvidia are building experimental servers with low-power ARM processors, which are found in most smartphones and tablets today. Tilera, ARM and x86 chips are based on separate instruction sets.

ARM may have more name recognition, but Tilera has a more powerful chip with 64-bit capabilities, Doud said. Current ARM processors are only 32-bit, and ARM has said it expects to make a meaningful impact in servers only in 2014 when it releases its 64-bit architecture.

"We're riding on some of the buzz around ARM," Doud said. "It's beneficial to Tilera. We've got the technology now."

But Tilera will not replace Intel in data centers overnight, and its chips will go through years of testing before making its presence felt in the server market, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research. It's difficult for companies to move away from the high server reliability and up time provided by x86 chips.

Early adopters can test Tilera chips on low-priority systems like web servers, which won't halt data-center operations in case of a crash. But even those tests would last years.

"We've seen that pattern not only with non-x86, but x86 products," McCarron said, citing the example of Intel's x86 low-power Atom chips, which are being used in experimental servers for tasks like web serving.

"The market for non-x86 has the same kind of requirements where you're going to have an early adopter that is going to play with it," McCarron said.

Rival architectures like ARM and MIPS have their benefits on power consumption, but the total cost of ownership needs to be considered before comparing architectures, said Jim McGregor, chief technology strategist at In-Stat.

Having the most power-efficient architecture doesn't do any good unless companies are willing to invest in software development, which is usually much more costly.

"There are and will always be applications that can justify new architectures for power or performance reasons, but they come with a high price tag for the software support and the risk of being locked-in to a sole source architecture," McGregor said.

With Intel's Xeon, there is almost unlimited software support and low total cost of ownership. There is also an alternate chip company in AMD, which is competitive in both price and performance, McGregor said.

But large customers deploying thousands of servers have their own source code are software support is a lesser concern, Tilera's Doud said. The savings experienced over four to five years matter more, and recompiling code is not that "big a deal," Doud said.

Common Linux applications, such as the Apache web server, MySQL database and Memcached caching software have already been ported for use on Tilera's chips. The Tilera architecture supports more than 2,000 Linux packages, and is working on building software support.

"We get no pushback at all," Doud said. "We have all the key libraries."

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