Intel: Custom Microprocessor Business Set to Expand

Intel Shipped Custom Chips to 18 Customers Last Year

by Anton Shilov
08/26/2013 | 11:00 PM

As large datacenter owners start to build their own servers tailored for their specific workloads, for chip companies like Intel Corp. it becomes increasingly important to offer chips tailored for exact needs of their customers. Last year the world’s largest microprocessor maker supplied such custom chips to eighteen clients, but the number is set to grow.


"That trend is growing. In the last year we have delivered 18 custom silicon processor solutions for the full array of customers -- our direct customers, the OEMS and the end users -- in order to meet their specific needs," said Diane Bryant, senior vice president and general manager of datacenter and connected systems group, in an interview with IDG News Service.

Just several years ago three server giants – HP, Dell and IBM – generally commanded the market with industry-standard offerings that suited most businesses. Nowadays there are companies like Apple, Facebook, Google or Microsoft, who run massive cloud datacenters and require customized equipment. Some companies – Facebook and Google – even assemble their custom servers in-house. In a bid to solve specific problems, microprocessors inside servers for these large customers are specifically tailored for their needs. At present, levels of chip customization are not too serious. In general, owners of datacenter needs to achieve necessary levels of performance while decreasing costs of ownership.

“We will have customers that have a very [specific] power target, so we will create versions whether it is through changes in frequency, changes in core count, changes to drive down the power. […] It all boils down to scale. I had one cloud service provider who had told me a single application is running across tens of thousands of servers. You can afford to tune that server very targeted against that application and eke out every bit of performance at ever lower cost of operations,” said Ms. Bryant.

The second round of customization will not only involve some customization of microprocessors and I/O, but will likely include made-to-order chips with specially designed I/O and even processing engines, according what a representative from Intel’s arch-rival, Advanced Micro Devices, said earlier this year. Intel seems to agree with that.

“With our SoC capability now, we can actually do rapid turns of our base product with very unique accelerators. Whether it's voice recognition acceleration or encryption or graphics acceleration... all the different types of accelerators that are targeted at different apps. We can deliver unique products there too,” explained the head of server business unit at Intel.

As server microprocessors are becoming system-on-chips, their tailoring for particular workloads should not be too complex. In fact, AMD has already formed semi-custom product division that so far has designed SoCs for next-generation video game consoles from Microsoft Corp. and Sony Corp. Eventually, similar product groups could develop tailored solutions for servers.

“We have this wonderful Xeon core, and now Intel has a system-on-a-chip capability where we can rapidly turn out grabbing different intellectual property blocks and accelerators. Why not take this Xeon core and marry it with the SoC capability, and come up with very [specific] processors targeted at unique capabilities,” said Ms. Bryant.