Thursday, August 16, 2018

FWD: Intel's data center connectivity ambitions

Intel's Data Center Innovation Summit this week in Silicon Valley, which coincided with the annual Flash Memory Summit across the street at the Santa Clara Convention Center, was the company's big event for resetting expectations about its strategic direction inside the data center.

Everyone knows that big data is the new hot commodity of our times, and that data centers are repositories where the new wealth is extracted and refined. Intel already dominates workload processing in this space with its well-entrenched Xeon franchise. Its new Optane storage promises to redefine the storage hierarchy in the data center. The third leg of the stool is communications, and while Intel has deep roots in Ethernet and network adapters, it has been burned before in trying to capture the switching and transport components of the data center.

Intel's ambition is now clear -- to offer an end-to-end data center connectivity portfolio, leveraging its FPGA technology (the Altera acquisition) with its homegrown silicon photonics technology, to capture the $11 billion data center connectivity opportunity.

The following slides were captured from Intel's daylong keynotes, which are now archived here:

Intel has some of these pieces of the puzzle already, especially its Ethernet network interface cards and FPGA-based acceleration cards. Earlier this year, Intel confirmed that FPGA-powered accelerator cards will be a range of Xeon powered servers this year from major OEMs, including Dell EMC and Fujitsu. 

The new component announced this week is a family of SmartNICs designed to offload workloads such as firewalling or load balancing from the local server processor or inline dedicated appliance.  Intel plans to introduced a 2x25 Gbps SmartNIC, followed by a 100 GigE model.  

A number of vendors already offer SmartNIC products, including ones powered by FPGAs, and hyperscale cloud companies, including Microsoft and Baidu, have talked of their SmartNICs for supercharging their data center networks. Intel thinks this trend is just beginning and that the industry will soon see programmable NICs re-directing network traffic and orchestrating the movement of VMs and containers between available resources.

Intel's new expectation is that FPGA, whether in SmartNICs or acceleration boards, will become a standard part of the infrastructure for applications from AI to video processing.

The second major component of Intel's data center connectivity strategy is Silicon Photonics, where it claims an advantage gained from years of R&D into integrating and manufacturing lasers with Indium Phosphide.