A company called Tilera has a multi-core chip that works really, really hard yet eats only a small amount of electricity.
There's been a fair amount of buzz in the air, lately, about so-called microservers built from low-power processor chips of the kind typically used in laptops and other mobile devices. Intel recently made its big move into this market, following in the footsteps of Dell Computer, HP, and a number of other companies working with the ARM processor.
But guess what? There turns out to be another way to skin this particular cat -- to deliver big doses of general-purpose computing power, that is, without consuming the gobs of electrical power that standard servers typically require. As everyone working in datacenters these days is surely aware of, electrical power is an increasingly important issue, with Google having figured that the cost of powering a compute server can easily equal or even exceed the cost of the server itself.
The company with a particularly promising alternative is a fabless semiconductor startup called Tilera, based in San Jose, Calif. It has developed an architecture that combines nine, 16, or even 36 64-bit RISC-based processing cores (with more to come) on a single chip, all linked together by a high-speed networking fabric. Together, these cores form a symmetric multiprocessing (SMP) computer that can run a full version of Linux and apps written in standard C.
Which is to say that Tilera's multicore design is not at all like those seen in graphics processing units (GPUs), which have been adapted to accelerating certain kinds of scientific and engineering work. Tilera's processing cores are general-purpose in nature, based on the well-proven MIPS instruction set. Indeed, what really distinguishes the Tilera design is its mesh network, which is able to connect the processing cores at very high speeds due largely to the very short physical distances between them. In addition, the chip contains a memory controller, 1gE and 10gE Ethernet, and PCIe controllers.
Now, Tilera is the first to admit that its processors are not one-for-one replacements for x86 processors, not by a long shot. For now, anyway, it's not likely anyone is going to replace their x86-based servers with those using Tilera chips. But the collective power of those many Tilera cores, available in a fairly familiar form (using Linux, etc.), actually makes the chip a good way to boost the performance of x86-based infrastructure, in a variety of ways.
Tilera's Bob Doud, director of processor strategy, tells me the company's chips have landed "hundreds" of design wins, including the handling of encryption and compression of data in storage systems to moving packets in networking gear. "Wherever there's a bottleneck, we can help," says Ihab Bishara, Tilera's director of server solutions. The Tilera approach is proving particularly appealing where large quantities of DRAM are needed -- running NoSQL DBMS or Hadoop, for instance, or caching data in a storage system -- and cost is an issue.
Where the Tilera processor may have its most visible impact, however, is in the cloud-scale datacenter, where full-blown Tilera-based servers could be configured to handle complete applications. Facebook is on the record as having determined that Tilera-based servers can provide three times the performance per watt that x86-based servers can. Tilera won't say, though, if Facebook is actually using Tilera technology in production.
Power to the people For now, anyway, it will be only outfits like Facebook, operating tens or even hundreds of thousands of servers and needing to run only a few well-understood apps on those machines, that will be willing to invest in writing code for this unique processor. At such large scale, it becomes economical even to have specialized servers built around such a chip, just to run a specific type of job with extra efficiency.
Yet, another approach is possible for smaller customers. Tilera sells PCIe cards with its processors onboard that can be plugged into pretty much any x86 server as a way to accelerate apps. What's required, of course, is the development of a chunk of code that can take advantage of the many cores on the Tilera chip, and that still requires some level of investment.
One industry that has found this worthwhile, though, is the low-latency trading crowd on Wall Street. There, Doud tells me, Tilera processors are proving to be good replacements even for FPGAs, renowned for their speed in executing specific algorithms but also for the severe challenges of their low-level, chip-like programming requirements. Tilera seems to offer a good alternative.