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Google puts Intel on notice, ‘looks forward’ to using non-Intel chips within its cloud

Today, Intel owns the data center market. The only challenger in the x86 space, AMD, once claimed a significant share of that market, but has been all-but eliminated after years of noncompetitive CPU architectures. AMD has been driven to single-digit market share, though the company hopes to take back some of it with its upcoming Zen processor, due next year. Other vendors, like IBM or ARM, have an even smaller market share than AMD. That could change in the next few years, however, and Google has flung its support behind a new interconnect standard, OpenCAPI, and IBM’s POWER9 CPU architecture.

In a blog post on Friday, Google announced that it had joined the OpenCAPI consortium, a group dedicated to developing a next-generation set of interconnects for servers and data centers. If this is giving you a sense of déjà vu, never fear — the Gen-Z announcement we covered last week also concerned a large group of companies that are developing a next-generation interconnect, and most of the same companies are members. Gen-Z aims to develop an interconnect standard for storage devices, heterogeneous accelerators, and pooled memory using memory semantic fabric, while OpenCAPI uses DMA semantics. Google and Nvidia are the only two members of OpenCAPI that aren’t also members of Gen-Z.

In its blog post, Google documents a new server it has developed, the Zaius P9 (which implements the OpenCAPI standard).


Zaius is designed to use two IBM POWER9 LaGrange CPUs with support for DDR4 (16 DIMM slots per CPU, 32 total), along with two 30-bit buses handling inter-CPU communication. POWER9 will include support for PCI Express Gen 4, with 84 lanes spread between the two processors. PCIe 4.0 isn’t expected to be finalized until 2017, and there’s no word on when consumer hardware will actually be available. Power9 is expected in 2017, but we don’t know when Google‘s Zaius specifically will debut. The chips themselves will target a 225W TDP, well above most of Intel’s hardware.

The goal of these new interconnect initiatives is to challenge Intel’s dominance in this space. OpenCAPI is a project Nvidia has prominently planned to support with the enterprise version of its Pascal architecture, and AMD has its own reasons for cooperating with such efforts. If it wants to win back space for Zen, it may have decided throwing its own lot in with competitors working on new interconnects is the right way to do that. There’s precedent for doing this — back in 2003, it was AMD’s HyperTransport bus and its support for “glueless” multi-socket systems that gave the company a prominent advantage over Intel in the multi-socket server market. Even after dual and quad-core chips were available, Opteron continued to outperform some of its Core 2-equivalents in multi-socket configurations, at least for a little while.

The threat to Intel is in the last line of Google’s blog post, where the company writes: “We look forward to a future of heterogeneous architectures within our cloud. And, as we continue our commitment to open innovation, we’ll continue to collaborate with the industry to improve these designs and the product offerings available to our users.”

That might seem like a mild sentence, but it’s a shot across the bow. Google is prominently backing Intel’s chief competitors, and given the consistent downturn in the PC industry, you can bet that Intel is taking any and all threats to its data center market extremely seriously.

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