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Multicore Processors Step Up to the Cloud

Simon Stanley
Heavy Lifting Analyst Notes
Simon Stanley
1/20/2017
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The approach taken by cloud service providers to hyper-scale data centers and virtual networking is driving the latest multicore processor developments. There are now more multicore processors available than ever before for cloud and networking applications, from the hyper-scale data center out to the network edge and the virtual customer premises equipment (vCPE). Processor and IP vendors are optimizing and extending 64-bit processor cores, and cache-coherent system architectures to deliver the best cloud service performance.

Cloud service providers such as Facebook and Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) have not followed the market by using existing platforms but have developed cost-effective alternatives taking basic server components and packaging them into rack-scale architectures, and then making them available through the Open Compute Project (OCP) for anyone to manufacture. Network acceleration in this model is implemented in software or through intelligent network adapters. This approach has highlighted Intel's dominant position and given competitors a blueprint into which they can slot their own processor solutions.

Server performance, scalability and virtualization are key requirements for systems across the network. While Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) has held a dominant position in the server market, competing processor companies have focused on developing integrated multicore processors with hardware acceleration for packet processing and security functions. Network virtualization using SDN and NFV has brought the whole network into the server domain but has not removed the requirement for high-performance packet processing.

Heavy Reading's report Multicore Processors Driving Network Virtualization: A Competitive Analysis, identifies and analyzes the full spectrum of vendors developing multicore processors and network acceleration software. The report profiles 20 vendors and analyses more than 90 different products and product families, identifying the key features and highlighting the advantages they hold for service providers and telecom solution providers. The report includes not only detailed information on the processors, but also insights into how the overall multicore processor market is developing.

Intel continues to lead the general-purpose processor market with the Intel Xeon-E5 processors, dominating the server options available. AMD remains a minor player in this market. Network acceleration software is available from several vendors, including 6WIND, Enea and Wind River. IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM) and Oracle Corp. (Nasdaq: ORCL), which have continued to develop processor architectures for their own servers, are now repositioning these solutions to address the wider hyper-scale data center and cloud server markets. AppliedMicro, Phytium and Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM) are new entrants to this market, although AppliedMicro's progress may be stalled by the uncertainty from the planned acquisition by Macom and the expected onward sale of the processor business. Given the excitement around this part of the market, there is likely to be plenty of interest in acquiring this business.

Integrated multicore processors continue to be important for systems in mobile infrastructure, network edge and enterprise networks. These processors provide a balance of server performance, network acceleration and power consumption. Intel is now an established player in this market, joining Broadcom Corp. (Nasdaq: BRCM), Cavium Inc. (Nasdaq: CAVM), Marvell Technology Group Ltd. (Nasdaq: MRVL) and NXP. Mellanox Technologies Ltd. (Nasdaq: MLNX) is the only supplier of network processors, having acquired EZchip Technologies Ltd. (Nasdaq: EZCH). Mellanox is also aggressively targeting the intelligent network adapter market, using IO processors based on ARM cores and in-house multicore and network adapter IP. Intelligent network adapter solutions are also available from Netronome and startup Kalray.

Multicore processors are evolving rapidly, taking advantage of IP developed by market leaders during the past 15 years. ARM has invested significant resources in growing an ecosystem that can challenge Intel, and this investment is starting to pay off, with several key players introducing competitive multicore processors based on ARMv8 cores. Imagination Technologies has also reinvigorated the MIPS architecture with solutions that could challenge ARM and in-house multicore architectures.

Intel remains the market leader but is now facing significant challenges, as processor decisions are increasingly being made by service providers and end customers, and not the equipment manufacturers.

— Simon Stanley, Analyst at Large, Heavy Reading

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