Intel's x86 chips lead the pack when it comes to general-purpose computing tasks. But with chips bumping up against clock speed and power-consumption limits, those with special-purpose alternatives are finding a foothold in the market.
One such company is Tilera, which on Wednesday launched a new effort called Tile-IQ to get customers to use its chips in the server market. Intel's x86 chips rule that particular roost, with thousands of the processors swarming in the data centers that run mammoth online services like Google search and Facebook social networking.
Tilera is trying to boost x86 servers, not replace them. Tile-IQ's goal is to encourage business partners to create add-in boards equipped with the company's multicore processors and software that makes use of them. The chips have 9, 16, 36, or 72 cores that can speed up network communication tasks such as encryption and decryption for security, intrusion detection to try to squelch network attacks, or deep packet inspection for network management.
Tilera also announced its own line of such add-ons, Tilencore-Gx.
The work embodies one of Intel's major challenges. When the steady advances in chip clock frequencies stopped about a decade ago, it left room for special-purpose chips that can accelerate specific tasks. That's meant that, despite Intel's unquestioned leadership in chip manufacturing, graphics chips are absorbing more and more computer workload. Even more specialized options are arriving, too: Apple's iPhone 5S has the dedicated M7 chip for detecting phone motion, and the Moto X has a chip for handling voice processing.
"The x86 machines were not originally designed for networking," said Bob Doud, Tilera's director of processor strategy. "One size does not fit all."
But as Intel's market power has shown, one size can fit an awful lot. The tremendous variety of software designed for x86 chips such as Intel's Xeon and Core means that Intel chips have plenty of incumbent power. Regardless of how powerful Tilera's 64-bit chips are, they're harder to use when the company must convince customers to adopt new software.
Tilera believes its multicore chips are powerful in their own right, but with the Tile-IQ approach, it's trying for cooperative co-existence rather than outright replacement.
Tilera's approach builds computers within computers. Each Tilera Tilencore-Gx card has its own Ethernet ports, offering as many as eight 10 gigabit per second connections.
Each of its processor boards runs its own copy of the Linux operating system, which Tilera itself supplies. One core runs the operating system conventionally, but the others use a no-interruption mode that ensures they aren't distracted from their job of handling 10Gbps of data from the network.
"You want to run in a mode where you're not going to have jitter and a packet is dropped because 1,000 cycles went away to a tick in the CPU," Doud said.
With the Tilera chips handling networking chores, the Intel chips have more resources for doing the higher-level software jobs they're supposed to, Doud said. That means servers are used more efficiently.