New Generation of Server Chips is Shaking Up the Data Center Landscape

By Sanjay Charagulla

Cloud computing and high-performance computing (HPC) are changing the data center industry in a big way. The biggest drivers in this space are consumerization and big data, putting our trajectory on steroids. Global cloud IP traffic will more than quadruple over the next 5 years, growing at a CAGR of 33 percent from 2014 to 2019, and accounting for more than 80 percent of total data center traffic. Also, more than 86 percent of workloads will be processed by cloud data centers. As the rapid pace of change continues, server computing and data storage requirements will continue to grow at a significant rate across the data centers, resulting in data center OEMs deploying more and more servers and storage.

Global IP Traffic by Local Access Technology Graph

Source: Cisco VNI Global Cloud Index, 2016


It was only a few years ago when companies were debating if they were ready for the cloud. Today, it’s no longer a question of if – it’s about how much they can get out of the cloud services. Server processor shipments are estimated to grow by an average rate of nearly 25 percent CAGR for the next four years, reaching a total of about 25 million processors. For example, out of 11+ million servers shipped last year, x86 chipsets were used in 9.8 million of them. In the second quarter of 2016, Intel accounted for 99.7 percent of x86 server-chip shipments. The cloud is also forcing changes to long established players in the hardware and software worlds. Recently, IBM unveiled new details of its Power9 chip —the next addition to the line of microprocessors the company plans to use in its own servers—and AMD announced its new Zen technology for server chips. Here is IBM’s official Power processor roadmap from last year, and see how AMD’s Zen microarchitecture is different from its other server cores. As data server companies seek to increase power and performance while reducing costs, chipmakers are up to the challenge to find ways to increase speed and functionality to devices while keeping costs low. For example, because of its competitive power and performance, with a ~10 percent lower die size, GLOBALFOUNDRIES’ advanced 14nm FinFET technology (14LPP), supports a wide range of products from mobile devices to servers, such as AMD and IBM’s server chip products. Enabled chip x86 processor performance by 3GHz+, the GF’s 14nm FinFET technology taps the benefits of three-dimensional, fully-depleted FinFET transistors, and offers impressive gains over 28nm bulk CMOS with up to 50 percent increase in performance and a 65 percent reduction in total power.

GlobalFoundries Enabling Server Architectures

Source: GF Technology Conference 2016

Image of Server Rack

The IBM and AMD announcements along with GF competitive advanced node technology, represent new competition to Intel’s dominance in the server market. In a recent strategy shift, IBM’s Power9 architecture will be offered to other hardware companies. Subsequently, IBM Power9 processors are not only targeting to HPC and enterprise server markets, but also enabling solutions for big data analytics, artificial intelligence, cognitive and hyper-cloud computing platforms. At a Silicon Valley technical conference this summer, AMD rolled out a demonstration of the performance with a head-to-head comparison of its Zen Core, claiming a 5x improvement in cache bandwidth with the redesigned memory subsystem. Overall, it is a core that contributes a 75 percent higher capacity to schedule instructions and a 50 percent greater ability to execute and issue them. With the advent of cloud computing, large service providers such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon are opting for systems based processors and open-source or in-house applications. Earlier this year, Google announced that they are working with Rackspace to co-develop an open server architecture design specification based on IBM’s new Power9 CPUs. The partnership with Nvidia should also help IBM’s Power9 become popular in servers as well as in supercomputers. Along with these two server giants, many other ARM processor-based chip vendors and other startups are building ARM server chips to target cloud datacenter markets. ARM estimates that 13 companies already are using its technology in chips for servers and other data-center hardware, which are expected to compete predominantly in single-socket and dual-socket servers with Intel server chip products. Server companies and other ARM based chip vendors are aiming at Intel’s chip dominance, targeting the~$12B server market for scale-out data centers. Overall in the next few years, these processor technologies and new solutions could begin driving a 15–25 percent growth in the server chip market.