Tilera takes aim at Intel and AMD with 100-core chip

Tilera said its low-power 100-core chip provides better performance per watt than x86 server chips

Tilera on Tuesday announced a new general-purpose CPU with 100 processing cores, which the company hopes will provide headway into a server market dominated by Intel and Advanced Micro Devices.

The low-power 100-core TileGX-3100 chip was co-developed with "leading cloud companies" with the aim of installing it in servers that run database applications and handle large volumes of Internet transactions, the company said. A Tilera spokeswoman declined to name the cloud companies that helped co-develop the chip, saying announcements would be made over time.

The TileGX-3100 processors will operate at clock speeds between 1GHz and 1.5GHz and draw 48 watts of power, the company said. Tilera claims the chip can execute more transactions per clock cycle while drawing less power than traditional server chips offered by Intel.

Chip makers are adding more processor cores as a way to boost application performance. Data centers are dominated by traditional x86 server chips such Intel's Xeon, which comes in versions with up to 10 cores, and Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron, which comes in versions with up to 12 cores. AMD plans to ship a 16-core server chip later this year. The chips can draw up to 130 watts of power.

There is also a growing interest in servers running on low-power chips as companies look to cut electricity costs. SeaMicro, for example, offers the SM10000-64 server that includes 256 of Intel's latest Atom N570 dual-core processors, which traditionally go into netbooks.

Calxeda is going after big data with a server based on ARM processors, which are more often found in smartphones and tablets.

One obstacle to its adoption is that ARM processors use a different instruction set to that used by their x86 counterparts. The TileGX chips use yet another instruction set, so software has to be written differently for each architecture.

The past is riddled with processor startups touting new megachips, said Jim McGregor, chief technology strategist at In-Stat. However there is always skepticism around such new chips that don't have a credible server track record on the hardware and software fronts, McGregor said.

Tilera has announced multicore chips in the past, but has a minimal presence in data centers as a supplier of general-purpose processors.

There is always room for niche products because server needs are diverse, McGregor said. Depending on the opportunities, such chips could function as co-processors for specific applications, McGregor said.

ARM processors have been included in PCs alongside x86 processors so computers could have quick-boot capabilities, which would give users quick access to the web without waiting for the Windows OS to fully load.

"Success can be measured in many ways, it just depends on how many chips you have to sell to achieve it," McGregor said.

Another uphill battle for a company like Tilera will come in establishing credibility around software compatibility, McGregor said. Most server software is written around the x86 code-base, and Tilera will have to attract developers to write applications for its chip.

Tilera did not respond to requests for comment, but in a presentation said it is making progress in software compatibility efforts.

The chip is designed for Linux servers, and can run the LAMP (Linux OS, Apache web server, MySQL database and PERL/Python) stack, Tilera said. The Linux kernel supports Tilera hardware, and the chip will be able to run more than 2,000 Linux software packages.

However, many industry analysts in the past have said that application performance either levels off or falls if there are excessive numbers of cores on chips. Tilera says its 100-core chip is scalable partly due to the way the cores are organized.

Tilera has organized parallelized cores in a square for faster reception and transfer of data. The mesh design and multiple points of chip communication reduce the chances of gridlock and provide faster bandwidth.

Each of the TileGX-3100 cores draws under 0.5 watts of power. The cores include 32KB of L1 cache, 256KB L2 cache, and share up to 32 megabytes L3 cache. The 100-core chip will also become available in the first quarter next year, the company said.

The company also announced two new TileGX-3000 series chips with fewer cores. The 64-core TileGX-3064 will draw 35 watts of power and become available in the first half next year. The 36-core TileGX-3036 will draw 20 watts of power and become available in the third quarter this year.

Tilera declined to comment on the server makers that would offer the 100-core chip.

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