Comms chips

Cavium Debuts SoC for Data Center Servers

Take on Intel in the server market all at once? Folly. Cavium Inc. (Nasdaq: CAVM) is picking its fights, one defined set of workloads at a time. The company just announced its ThunderX2 system-on-a-chip (SoC), which Cavium believes stacks up very favorably against Intel's line of processors for data center and cloud applications, including NFV, big data analysis, network storage and security.

The ThunderX2 will begin sampling later this year and will ramp into production and start shipping in 2017. They appear to be the first of the ARM-based server SoCs that the ARM community always promised were going challenge Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) in the server market.

The original ThunderX ARM-based multicore processors were appropriate for networking and storage applications. Cavium recently introduced a set of SoCs, each for specific applications in the data center. The ThunderX2 are more powerful than its predecessors, with several enhancements for the server market. (See Cavium Targets Intel With Multicore SoC Line.)

ThunderX2 processors can combine up to 54 custom ARMv8 cores. Cavium beefed up the ThunderX2's memory capacity, doubled its memory bandwidth, included options for connectivity at all the most likely Ethernet speed options (10G, 25G, 40G, 50G, 100G), and tweaked its workload accelerators for security, virtualization, compression and packet processing, all to make the ThunderX2 more attractive in server applications.

By several measures, the new ThunderX2 doubles and sometimes triples the performance of its ThunderX predecessors. It has both single- and dual-socket support.

Data center and cloud makes up roughly 30% of the server market. It was tough to hit the performance requirements of that market with the original ThunderX products, Gopal Hegde, Cavium's VP/GM of its Data Center Processor Group, told Light Reading. "The ThunderX2 lines up well against what we've heard is desired so far," he said.

Cavium benchmarked the ThunderX2 against one of Intel's Broadwell (E5-v4) processors, and Hegde said even he was surprised that the ThunderX2 exceeded the Broadwell's performance in some workloads. Given what is publicly known about Intel's forthcoming follow-on to Broadwell, Cavium believes the ThunderX2 will stack up well against Intel Skylake processors too. (Broadwell, Skylake and ThunderX2 are all produced with 14nm production processes.)

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The company claims ThunderX2 will also represent a lower total cost of ownership (TCO) than Intel processors.

Meanwhile, Cavium is steering clear of taking on Intel in the high-performance computing applications market.

As it is, IBM seems to be aiming at that portion of the market with its Power processors.

"Intel is an 800-pound gorilla. you can't go head to head with them everywhere. You have to target a niche and win that niche," Hegde, said, adding "We're focused on winning customer by customer, workload by workload."

He said the ThunderX2 has a "major data center operator" in China he declined to identify that is preparing to deploy ThunderX2 servers for at least one application. "We hope to get in for more," he said.

Separately, Cavium described its CloudScale Rack solution, demonstrating how customers can build a complete cloud data center using customer platforms built on Cavium's product portfolio.

Cavium will customize its processors for specific workloads, with the basic idea being that the customization at the processor level will lead to better overall data center performance.

Extant servers use standard processors and require NICs, HBAs and offload cards to meet the storage and virtualization needs of data centers, which Cavium argues makes it hard to provision and move workloads across the data center.

Cavium's approach is a scalable rack solution with a range of what Cavium calls Workload Optimized servers for compute, storage, networking and management modules that work together to build a wide range of on-demand logical, virtual systems, which are more adoptable and scalable to emerging networking protocol and security needs of the cloud.

Hegde said CloudScale Rack is less a standardized product and more a reference architecture to show what can be done with Cavium's approach.

— Brian Santo, Senior Editor, Components, T&M, Light Reading

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