Does the Cloud Need a Specialized Chip?

Intel's single chip cloud computer

Tilera, a startup building chips that contain anywhere from 16 to 100 cores, said today it’s raised $25 million in a third round of funding from investors including Broadcom. Chips made by Tilera, which we named as one of five multicore statups to watch two years ago, are aimed at boosting performance and energy efficiency for networking and cloud computing, which is likely why Broadcom invested. But as Tilera spends more time emphasizing the cloud and big players like Intel do the same, we have to ask: Do cloud computing and web-scale computing need their own chips?

Broadcom likely wants an edge should Tilera’s multiple RISC-based (rather than Intel’s x86) processors set fire to the cloud computing world as equipment companies attempt to develop power-efficient chips that can be adapted to specific workloads. For Broadcom, an investment in Tilera is a direct challenge to Intel’s dominance in the data center computing space, as well as a bet on faster networking chips.

Tilera has advantages in cloud computing because its chip architecture allows for a lot of lower-power processors to talk to one another using an interconnect technology that doesn’t cause bottlenecks. In plain English, Tilera has figured out a way to get a lot of cores to talk without having to pause to listen to one another, which slows things down as you add more cores. A Tilera executive told me last year that if just 10 percent of cloud computing or web-scale customers took a chance on the startup’s architecture, it could succeed.

But while Tilera, which started developing its chips in 2004, may have the lead when it comes to building massively multicore chips with a mesh-interconnect, Intel smells an opportunity as well and as such is building out what it calls a “single-chip cloud computer” with 48 cores for the cloud computing market. There are also systems vendors trying to solve similar problems for those needing energy-efficient web-scale computing, such as SeaMicro and Smooth-Stone.

A key problem in all of these endeavors is figuring out how to get the multiple chips or cores to function together in such a way that performance scales linearly with the addition of each new core rather than tapering off as the communications between the cores or chips becomes overloaded. Intel and Tilera are hoping to do this on the chip itself, while systems vendors are trying to do it with a better box.

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