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Forget the GPad - is Google building a server chip?

The needs of a 10 million node machine

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

What a Google needs

With an estimated 35 data centers and 1.8 million servers backing its search engine, advertising systems, and online applications, Google has power, cooling, and real estate problems that no other company in the world can appreciate. And with its custom designed GFS distributed file system and its MapReduce distributed number-crunching platform spreading tiny pieces of data across all those servers, its performance needs are outside the norm as well.

The PA Semi folks that founded Agnilux after leaving Apple have plenty of experience with chips and instruction sets of all sorts, and before Google acquired them, they could have been up to almost anything. All we really know the company is that it's based in San Jose and that its name is a mix of Sanskrit and Latin. Agni is the Sanskrit word for fire, lux the Latin word for light.

The assumption is that Agnilux was working on a variant of the ARM processor for use in servers, and given the thermal properties of ARM chips, this is a fair guess. But for all we know, Agnilux was building a variant of the Power chip - not the ARM. PA Semi was designing super-efficient Power clones when it was founded in 2003 by Dan Dobberpuhl, the lead designer on Digital Equipment's Alpha 64-bit chip, and Jim Keller, who worked on the Alpha and then the Opteron at AMD. Chip designers move from companies to startups and back again, and more times than not, they have great ideas that can't be commercialized. Think of the Transmeta chips that HP put into its first blade servers.

But with Google, building servers isn't a commercial undertaking - at least not directly. The Chocolate Factory can afford to indulge its whims, and it might as well build its own chips rather than waiting for Intel and VIA to tweak their Atom and Nano processors to handle Big Data applications on a small power budget. In this regard, Google would be acting more like a government-sponsored supercomputing lab, fashioning exotic hardware aimed at exotic problems.

And we might add that using low-power chips to take on high-power tasks is hardly a new idea. Witness the Atom servers from SuperMicro and SGI.

If this is indeed what Google is after, then the possibilities are intriguing indeed. It's easy to become a licensee of the ARM designs - it's quite possible that Agnilux already had the license - and parent company ARM Holdings would love nothing better than to have Google endorse its product over the x64 architecture. It would be the coup of the decade, and it will no doubt get other people looking at the ARM architecture for servers and desktops running Linux.

Because Google's workloads are based on Linux, presumably it's easy to port them over to ARM or Power or any other architecture that supports the open source OS. We don't know how tightly Google has compiled its applications down to the various x64 processors it uses. But, well, it just acquired a bunch of chip engineers and has plenty of software engineers to do a port to a new architecture if it thinks the benefits outweigh the hassle.

You can buy the GPad story if you like. But just for argument's sake, we point you to recent graphic from webhost Intac. It seeks to show - with big, bright colors - how many servers Google is running relative to the world's other tech giants (though it leaves out the likes of Yahoo!, Amazon, and Microsoft). Google is the one at the bottom. You can't miss it:

Google servers v the world

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