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Quanta opens servers to 100-core Tilera

Snipping out the Linux middlemen

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Upstart multicore, Linux-compatible chip maker Tilera don't need no stinking tier one server makers. That means no IBM, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, or Sun Microsystems. At least not yet. The company has just lined up $25m in its C round of funding, which includes $10m from Quanta Computer, the Taiwanese PC maker that is the volume leader in notebook manufacturing in the world. And as Tilera has confirmed to El Reg, Quanta is going to use Tilera chips to build servers.

As it turns out, one of the reasons why Tilera announced its future Tile-Gx family of 100-core mesh processors last week, a year before they are coming to market, is because the company had closed is third round of financing, bringing in a total of $64m to date. And Tilera is pretty chuffed about getting the money and expanding its market from security and video conference appliances to cloud servers.

"There are a lot of bodies by the roadside, companies that didn't make it, and the closing of the C round in under a month makes us feel confident," says Bob Doud, director of marketing, referring to the IT startups that were knocked by the drying up of venture capital in the wake of the economic meltdown. "Our last quarter was our strongest ever, and the numbers are moving up and to the right." Doud added that the third round of venture funding will allow Tilera to get to breakeven by 2011 and that the company expected to get revenues from cloud computing in 2010.

Tilera's top brass are smart enough to know that they can't take a head-on approach to the x64 server hegemony. That's why the company chased security and network appliance makers in the past two years with its 36-core and 64-core mesh processors, which are true systems on a chip with integrated memory controllers, network, and peripheral controllers on the chip. It is an oblique attack, where applications are homegrown and operating system compatibility with Windows, Linux, or Unix are not as important as running some version of Linux and having a decent compiler stack and other important features, such as low power or high performance per watt.

The Tile-Gx chips will run the Linux 2.6.26 kernel and other elements of the typical Linux stack. Apache, PHP, and MySQL are being ported to the chips to make them suitable for servers, and Tilera has picked up the GCC compiler set to use it alongside the C/C++ compilers that Tilera licensed from Silicon Graphics and ported to its chips. The Tile-Gx series of chips will have Java running on them when they are delivered next year, too, and already sport an Eclipse development toolset. The cores on the Tile processors are not x64 compatible, so Windows and .NET are not an option.

While Doud was not at liberty to reveal the details, he did tell El Reg that Tilera had inked a deal with Quanta that will see the Taiwanese original design manufacturer make servers based on the future Tile-Gx series of chips, which will span from 16 to 100 RISC cores and which will begin to ship at the end of 2010. (The details on the forthcoming Tile-Gx chips are here). Given that Quanta is expected to create a line of servers that it will try to sell directly to cloud computing providers who are, by their nature, using an open source software stack and can justify using a non-x64 architecture, particularly if they are selling application services on clouds instead of raw iron to run x64-compatible infrastructure.

Tilera says that its 100-core TileGx-100 will offer about four times the performance of a current "Nehalem EP" Xeon 5500 processor, which has eight cores running Linux infrastructure workloads. The top-end 100-core chip will be rated at around 55 watts running full-out with a 1.5 GHz clock speed, compared to 95 watts for the X5570 chip from Intel, which clocks at 2.93 GHz. At around $1,000 a pop, the TileGx-100 will cost a lot less than the X5570, which sells for just under $1,400 in low volumes. It's this combination of lower cost, higher performance, and lower power draw that has Quanta interested in doing a non-x64 server.

Quanta got into the server racket in 2000 when it founded its Enterprise Solutions business unit, which does ODM and OEM manufacturing and makes custom server motherboards, servers, KVM switches, networking gear, and VoIP appliances for its customers. Quanta makes 1U and 2U rack mounted servers, blade servers, and raw motherboards supporting Intel's Xeon processors.

Quanta is not talking about its plans for the Tile-Gx chips in its servers, and is not expected to until next year, but did say in a statement that it has selected the 64-core version of the Tile chips "to develop products for cloud computing data centers." Ted Chang, vice president of the Quanta Research Institute, the research and development arm at Quanta, added that the "Tilera's power efficient, general purpose processors are a natural fit for datacenters products" and that "with an architecture that scales to hundreds of cores, Tilera is a clear choice for future compute requirements."

Doud says that Tilera, which has 65 employees (mostly in chip design and software engineering) has picked up over 75 customers since it came out of stealth mode in August 2007. The company went after the networking and multimedia markets first, and has captured four out of five of the major intrusion appliance vendors and has three design wins among streaming media equipment suppliers that sell their gear to cable and telco firms. It has just closed a design win with a video conferencing company. The company started peddling Tile chips to wireless infrastructure equipment suppliers last year and has two tier one suppliers that are using the chips.

Tilera cannot, as yet, disclose the identity of any of these customers; Quanta is the first who is giving Tilera some PR.

Cloud computing is the fourth market Tilera is chasing, and it could turn out to be the biggest one in the long run. "We realize that Intel and AMD are heavily entrenched in cloud, and that we are not going to boil the ocean overnight," says Doud. He says that two other unnamed OEM vendors are looking at using the Tile chips in servers aimed at cloud infrastructure as well.

Just to prove how powerful the Tile chips are, the company took its current TilePro64 chip and its techies ported the open source Memcached Web caching program to the homegrown Linux kernel. The company sys that a single of its second-generation TilePro64 chips was able to "blow by" a two-socket Nehalem EP server. "And our chip burns less power than the fans do in the x64 box," Doud says with a laugh.

Of course, the Tile chips don't have floating point math units, so they are limited to integer work. Which is a shame, since the massively multicore and mesh interconnect is the kind of architecture that HPC workloads might be able to make brilliant use of. Anyway, despite this, it would be interesting to see some tier two server makers step up and make boxes that support the current and future Tile chips. Super Micro could certainly do it, since it already knows how to make motherboards and is happy to go up against the tier one players with any edge it can identify. ®

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