Intel turned to an unlikely source for the newest version of its infrastructure processing unit strategy: longtime rival Arm.
The new Mount Evans IPU, designed to help cloud providers manage their internal computing needs alongside those of their customers, will come with 16 Arm Neoverse N1 cores. That's the same core that's at the heart of AWS's Graviton2 processor, one of the greatest threats to Intel's decades-long dominance of the data center market.
But Mount Evans isn't designed to run cloud customer applications like Graviton2. Instead, it's the latest iteration of Intel's attempt to take a page from modern cloud-server designs and build its own companion processors to help cloud providers run their data centers more efficiently.
"We're looking at this in a very pragmatic way," Guido Appenzeller, chief technology officer for Intel's Data Platforms Group, told Protocol. "We make design decisions based on a number of different factors, and in this case, these Arm cores met the design target performance we were looking for."
Still, it's yet another sign that Intel is changing more than six months after Pat Gelsinger returned to the company where he played an integral role in shaping the PC era of the tech industry around Intel's x86 instruction set. Almost all modern PC and server software has been designed with those chips in mind, and over the last two decades Intel executives have been reluctant to even acknowledge the existence of alternative instruction sets, let alone discuss their benefits.
Data centers as hotels
Companies that manage their own servers run everything on the processor at the heart of that server. In the very early days of cloud computing companies like AWS and Microsoft followed a similar strategy, but there is a lot of additional overhead required to manage huge data centers and support modern application designs, which began to overwhelm those processors.
This led to a number of cloud providers piecing together sophisticated networking chips and other co-processors to handle some of that administrative load. Nvidia found a lot of success with chips for this market over the last few years, and Intel committed itself to this design strategy earlier this year with the introduction of its IPUs.
Appenzeller compared Intel's IPU strategy to the way living spaces are designed depending on who owns the space. In your own home, you move between different rooms as you like. When you stay in a hotel, you have freedom to use your own room however you want, but you can't get into your neighbor's room and facilities such as the dining area and lobby are available for your use but are controlled by the owner.
In this analogy, an IPU is the dining area and lobby; facilities you want and expect, but have no expectation or desire of controlling. Intel's Xeon processors or AWS's Graviton2 processors would therefore be like individual hotel rooms, where customers (guests) can access and control the activity in their own space.
"We think of this not so much as an offload, but as a dedicated place to run the infrastructure functions and be under the control of the infrastructure operator," Appenzeller said.
Coming down the mountain
Mount Evans will be Intel's first ASIC (application-specific integrated processor) design for its IPU strategy. Earlier versions, as well as two other new IPUs scheduled to be unveiled Thursday, were based around FPGA chips that can be configured by the customer to suit a variety of needs, but Appenzeller said the ASIC design offers better performance.
It will be able to support up to four Xeon processors that are running customer applications inside cloud data centers, helping move data into and out of those chips with Intel's networking technology while offering additional computing resources with the Arm Neoverse cores. Intel has made several programmable chips for embedded systems that use Arm cores, but Mount Evans will be one of the company's most prominent endorsements of its technology.
Intel is unwilling to say much more about Mount Evans than it plans to reveal Thursday, including when it expects to start shipping the new IPU. Mount Evans was "designed in collaboration with a large CSP," or cloud-service provider, Intel said, but it declined to confirm which one.
Microsoft has a long history of collaboration on both PCs and servers with Intel, but the chip company said it was working with "a different partner" on Mount Evans. AWS built something similar to Mount Evans called the Nitro system for its own internal use a few years ago.