Tilera on Monday announced new general purpose CPUs, including a 100-core chip, as it tries to make its way into the server market dominated by Intel and Advanced Micro Devices.
The two year old startup's Tile-GX series of chips are targeted at servers and appliances that execute web-related functions such as indexing, web search and video search, said Anant Agarwal, cofounder and chief technology officer of Tilera. The chips have the attributes of a genera purpose CPU as they can run the Linux OS and other applications commonly used to serve web data.
"You can run us as an adjunct to something else, though the intent is to be able to run it standalone," Agarwal said. The chips could serve as co-processors alongside x86 chips, or potentially replace the chips in appliances and servers.
Chip makers are continuously adding cores as a way to boost application performance. Most x86 server chips today come with either four or six cores, but Intel is set to release the Nehalem-EX chip, an x86 microprocessor with eight cores. AMD will shortly follow with a 12-core Opteron chip codenamed Magny Cours. Graphics processors from companies like AMD and Nvidia include hundreds of cores to run high performance applications, though the chips are making their way into PCs.
The Gx100 100-core chip will draw close to 55 watts of power at maximum performance, Agarwal said. The 16-core chip will draw as little as 5 watts of power.
Tilera's chips have an advantage in performance per watt compared to x86 chips, but some will be skeptical as the chips are not yet established, said Will Strauss, principal analyst at Forward Concepts.
"I don't think an average person is going to run out to buy a computer with Tilera in it," Strauss said. Intel has the advantage of being an incumbent, and even if Tilera offered something comparable to Intel's chips, it would take years to catch up.
But to start, Tilera is focusing the chips on specific applications that can scale in performance across a large number of cores. It has ported certain Linux applications commonly used in servers, like the Apache web server, MySQL database and Memcached caching software, to the Tilera architecture.
"The reason we have target markets is not because of any technological limitations or other stuff in the chip. It is simply because, you know, you have to market your processor [to a] target audience. As a small company we can't boil the ocean," Agarwal said.
The company's strategy is to go after lucrative markets where parallel processing capability has a quick payout, Strauss said. Tilera could expand beyond the web space to other markets where low power chips are needed.
It helps that applications can be programmed in C as with an Intel processor, but programmers are needed to write and port the applications, Strauss said. "How easy is it to port Windows or Linux also remains to be seen," he said.
Applications like Apache and MySQL already run on x86 chips and can be ported to run on Tilera chips, company executives said. In a co-processor environment, x86 processors will run legacy applications, while the Tilera will do the web-specific applications, he said.
"As a smaller company, we can focus in on a couple of applications, drive those, and over time as we grow, we can expand," said Bob Doud, director of marketing at Tilera. The company didn't talk about the markets it would like to go into in the future.
However, industry analysts say that application performance either levels off or even deteriorates as more cores are added to chips. Part of the performance relies on how the cores are assembled, said Agarwal, who is also a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
For faster data exchange, Tilera has organized parallelised cores in a square with multiple points to receive and transfer data. Each core has a switch for faster data exchange. Chips from Intel and AMD rely on crossbars, but as the number of cores expands, the design could potentially cause a gridlock that could lead to bandwidth issues, he said.
"You can have three or four streets coming in but ... it's hard to imagine 30 streets coming into an intersection," Agarwal said. The mesh architecture used in Tilera chips is expandable as the square gets bigger, he said.
In addition to additional cores, the new Tilera chips include many upgrades from their predecessors. The chips are speedier, running at up to 1.5GHz, with support for 64-bit processing. The chips will be made using the 40 nanometer process, which make them smaller and more power-efficient. Earlier chips were made using the 90nm process. The chips will start shipping next year, with the 100 core chip scheduled to ship in early 2011.