Wimpy Cores Are Coming to Facebook. But Whose Cores?

Amir Michael, hardware design manager at Facebook, holds an "open compute program" server from the racks at Facebook's headquarters in Palo Alto, CA. Photograph by Norbert Von Der Groeben/Landov  

Facebook has made waves by detailing its plans to use what an executive calls “cell phone chips”—or “wimpy cores”—in its future data centers. Frank Frankovsky, the vice president in charge of infrastructure at Facebook, told me the social network plans to test such chips now and throughout next year, with plans to put them into production in 2014.

“We’re testing and generally bullish on the category, and based on some of the early testing, our useful work per watt per dollar will improve, although that varies by workload,” said Frankovsky, adding: “Although our HipHop [loads are] the most CPU-intensive, and that hasn’t been ruled out.” HipHop is the open-source code Facebook uses to speed up the PHP code underlying the entire site.

But the question Frankovsky can’t or won’t answer is which of these cell phone chips Facebook might adopt, a hugely important question given the size of Facebook’s infrastructure and the influence it can exert on other companies as a founding member of the Open Compute Project. So let’s do a quick rundown of the possible winners in this particular data center cage match.

Frankovsky was very clear in talking to me about what he thought of as a wimpy core. It doesn’t have to actually be an ARM chip to have the cell-phone-style architecture he referred to earlier. Intel’s Atom is still in the running. He also said, however, that graphics processors aren’t something he’s considering, because they don’t make sense for his workloads. On the issue of whether 64-bit-compatible chips would be in store, Frankovsky hedged, refusing to outright commit to 64-bit. But he did say Facebook doesn’t “plan to adopt anything that’s not 64-bit.”

As for timing, he said the testing is ongoing, with some adoption expected in the second half of 2013. Frankovsky added that “if all the stars align, [Facebook's adoption] will be a material impact to the market” by 2014. So which companies might see the impact of Facebook’s adoption of wimpy cores? Here are the contenders.

Calxeda. This Austin (Tex.)-based startup counts Frankovsky as an adviser of sorts, but its product—a system that combines several ARM-based cores and a proprietary networking chip enabling those cores to communicate—is just off the line. Plus, it will have to wait until 2013 or 2014 until its systems can support the 64-bit instruction set. This is within the Frankovsky timeline, and the workloads he has mentioned are ones where Calxeda is trying to establish tests and benchmarks.

Marvell/Dell. Marvell Technology Group is also using ARM-based cores in its Armada line of chips, and Dell has picked up those chips to start testing a line of servers. Dell announced the line in May, and it is already a huge supplier of hardware for Facebook as well as a participant in the social network’s Open Compute Project. Plus, Frankovsky is a former Dell employee from the DCS Group, where Facebook bought a lot of its hardware.

Intel. Frankovsky was very clear that he regards Intel’s Atom core to be in the class of wimpy cores he is considering. And while many may scoff, Intel has done a good job reducing the power consumption of its x86 chips for the Atom line, unveiling the Centerton chips this month that will ship inside Hewlett-Packard’s low-power servers (HP also has a deal to bring Calxeda’s systems to market). The new systems will be able to do as much work as a traditional 150-watt system in a 12-to-14 watt envelope. Plus, Intel already makes a 64-bit Atom part designed for SeaMicro, a company building low-power microservers. Intel has an existing relationship with Facebook, the dominant x86 architecture, and a 64-bit part in the market.

Advanced Micro Devices. This is a bit difficult to assess given that prior to buying SeaMicro in March, AMD didn’t really have much of a story or option for wimpy cores. It still doesn’t, but buying SeaMicro—which uses Intel’s Atom part—gives it an entrée into the market that it will press. Plus, when I listed the competition for Frankovsky, he told me: “I wouldn’t leave AMD out of this race, either.”

Tilera. This Cambridge (Mass.)-based startup has been building massively multi-core chips designed for big data and cloud workloads since 2004. It has an advantage of having more than 10,000 existing cores running in production at unspecified customers, according to Ihab Bishara, the director of server solutions for Tilera. It has also been tried by Facebook in its 32-bit iteration and won favorable comments from the social network. Cynics have claimed Facebook did that test just to keep Intel on its toes, but Tilera has the first non-x86, 64-bit-based server available in the market and is already deployed in servers in 3 of the top 20 websites.

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