How Intel plans to change servers as it breaks away from PCs
From PCs to servers, Intel is trying to redesign the way computers operate. We’ve already seen how PCs are changing, with 2-in-1 hybrids and tiny Compute Sticks, but some of the chip maker’s groundbreaking technologies will initially appear in servers.
The PC market is in decline, and the chip maker has cut unprofitable products like smartphone chips. Intel is redirecting more resources to develop server and data-center products, which are already money makers for the company.
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Intel has cut about 12,000 jobs in the transition away from smartphone chips and PCs. Employees have bought into the company’s new strategy, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich said during a speech at the Bernstein Strategic Decisions Conference last week.
Many innovations and "dramatic changes" are coming over the next two to three years, especially on the data-center side of the business, Krzanich said.
Intel has always looked at ways to drive up performance in individual systems, but the company’s focus is changing to drive improvements in server, memory, networking and storage components at the rack level. The company is also working to speed up communications between the components.
"We have a lot of good work to do," Krzanich said.
Intel has pushed a concept called the Rack Scale architecture, which is meant to bring configuration flexibility and power efficiency to server installations. The idea is to decouple processing, memory and storage into separate boxes on a rack. More memory, storage and processing resources can be installed at the rack-level than on individual servers patched together, and shared resources like cooling could help cut data-center costs.
Intel’s OmniPath fabric, a superfast interconnect technology, is viewed by Krzanich as the centerpiece of new server technologies. It will provide the protocols for CPUs to communicate at faster speeds with components inside a server and at the rack level. In the future, Intel envisions data transfers happening over beams of light, which will speed up OmniPath.
OmniPath will accelerate workloads like analytics and databases. It will be available through network controllers on Intel’s upcoming Xeon Phi supercomputing chip code-named Knights Landing, but the ultimate goal is to bring the interconnect closer to the CPU.
"There are workloads that can be taken from software that’s working in memory to software that’s working right on the silicon, right next to the CPU, with a direct link through the OmniPath fabric," Krzanich said.
Using beams of light for speedy data transfers is the idea behind silicon photonics, another technology that’s a priority for Intel. Silicon photonics will replace traditional copper wires and will bring faster data transfers across storage, processing and memory components on racks, Krzanich said.
After delays, Intel has said it will ship modules to implement silicon photonics later this year.
Xeon chips will always be important to Intel, but the chip maker is also looking at speedy co-processors called FPGAs to quickly perform specific tasks. Intel believes a killer combination of CPUs and FPGAs, which can be easily reprogrammed, could speed up a wide range of workloads.