Alibaba Introduces Arm-Based Server Chip for Cloud Data Centers

Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba is rolling out Arm-based processors designed in-house that will power servers within the organization’s data centers, improving the energy efficiency and performance of the facilities as the company expands the cloud services it offers.

The move is the latest embrace by a hyperscale cloud provider of Arm’s low-power system-on-a-chip (SoC) architecture and another step in the government of China’s push to drive greater independence when it comes to semiconductors and other technologies.

At the Alibaba Group’s annual Apsara Conference in China this week, Jeff Zhang, president of Alibaba Cloud and head of the Alibaba DAMO Academy science and technology institution, announced the new Yitian 710 chips. Zhang said in a statement that Alibaba will use the custom-built chips in current and future businesses, and in the near future will offer computing services through the Alibaba Cloud.

The 5-nanometer processors, developed by Alibaba’s T-Head development team, will not be sold commercially, according to company officials. Instead, they will run in the company’s proprietary Panjiu servers in the Alibaba Cloud. The servers, also developed in-house, were designed to separate compute from storage, which officials said will enable them to better support cloud-native applications that don’t need physical servers.

Because of that, the servers will specialize in artificial intelligence (AI) computing, which will make the processing, deploying and analyzing of large amounts of data more accessible to smaller businesses.

Alibaba is just the latest online giant to design its own chips, following in the footsteps of Facebook, Google, Amazon and others.

See also: IBM’s 2nm Chip Will Remake IT Industry

Lots of Cores and Transistors

Each Yitian 710 chip, which delivers up to 3.2GHz in speed, houses 128 cores and 60 billion transistors, each one of which runs complex calculations using binary code, according to Alibaba. The company claims the new chips provide up to a 20 percent higher performance rate and 50 percent better energy efficiency compared with other server processors.

Alibaba using the Arm architecture for its custom processors is a big deal for the chip designer, according to Bob O’Donnell, principal analyst with TECHnalysis Research.

“Arm continues to gain share in the server and infrastructure market, and every step along the way from a big player is a big step forward,” O’Donnell told InternetNews. “Alibaba is a huge cloud provider in China. You think of Amazon, Google and Microsoft here [in the United States]. In China, it’s Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent as the big three, so having them deploy and create an Arm-based chip for their data centers is huge.”

Alibaba chip
Alibaba’s Arm-based chip

A Week of Arm News

Alibaba’s announcement came the same week that Arm is hosting its DevSummit 2021 event, where company officials announced new initiatives in such areas as the Internet of Things (IoT) and 5G networking.

Arm made its name over the past three decades by being the architecture in almost all of the chips powering smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices that needed energy-efficient chips. Arm doesn’t manufacture processors. Instead, it designs the architecture and licenses those designs to a broad array of tech partners, including Qualcomm, Samsung, Apple, AMD, Nvidia and MediaTek.

Turning to the Data Center

About 10 years ago, company officials saw an opportunity to push its way into data centers by giving enterprises that were seeing power costs surge an alternative to x86 chips from Intel and AMD. Major OEMs were cautious in where they deployed the chips, but hyperscalers like Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook, which run networks of massive data centers, were happy to embrace the Arm architecture.

Amazon in 2018 introduced Graviton, a family of Arm-based SoCs that the e-commerce and cloud giant put into its data centers as well as its Outposts hardware, which is designed to run in on-premises data centers and provide enterprises with access to their Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud services. The rise of modern workloads like AI, machine learning and data analytics also has fueled the growth of startups like Ampere that are creating chips optimized for such applications as well as for the cloud, with many of these smaller companies leaning on the Arm architecture for their chip designs.

See also: Cloud Market Soars as IBM, Microsoft Build Out Services

Arm Gains in HPC

Arm also is gaining traction in the high-performance computing (HPC) space. In June, Japan’s Fugaku supercomputer topped the Top500 list of the world’s fastest systems on the back of its custom Arm-based A64FX processors, reaching a peak performance level that was about three times better than the number-two system, the IBM-built Summit supercomputer, which uses Power9 processors and Nvidia Tesla V100 GPUs.

Expect to see more major cloud players turn to Arm-based processors, O’Donnell of TECHnalysis said.

“They’re trying to do several things,” he said. “They’re trying to reduce their power consumption. These guys have massive data centers with huge farms of very power-intensive chips in them. High-end server CPUs and high-end GPUs are not exactly known for being low power. They need a lot of power, so there’s the practical matter of wanting to reduce their carbon footprint and trying to be more power-efficient, so they’re able to offer certain types of compute workloads on these Arm processors.”

In addition, it also gives the cloud providers another option to offer organizations leveraging their services. Amazon in a number of cases has offered compute instances for less money than they were charging for x86-based instances, the analyst said. At the same time, Arm has created a large ecosystem of more than 1,000 partners that are creating hardware and software for the Arm architecture, and hyperscalers want to leverage all that innovation.

Alibaba Targets AWS, Azure

Alibaba is no different. The company is a major cloud player in China and wants to extend its reach farther beyond the country’s borders, which would put it in more direct competition with such market leaders as AWS, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud. It’s a huge market. Synergy Research Group this month reported that revenue in the global cloud ecosystem space – which includes cloud infrastructure – reached $235 billion in the first half of 2021, a year-over-year increase of 25 percent.

The most growth was in cloud infrastructure services, where first-half revenues rose 37 percent. Synergy analysts said that such companies as Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Dell, Salesforce and IBM were featured most prominently, but said Alibaba and other Chinese organizations – like Inspur and Huawei – were among other major players in the space.

Goldman Sachs last year valued Alibaba Cloud at $93 billion, while revenue could pass $8.3 billion in fiscal year 2022. Last year, revenue for Alibaba Cloud came in at about $5.7 billion.

The focus on Arm comes as Nvidia continues to pursue buying the company from Japanese multinational Softbank for $54 billion, though there’s no guarantee that the deal will go through. European Union and UK regulators are investigating the potential deal.

Alibaba said that with the Yitian 710 in place, it will open the source code for its XuanTie 910 chip – as well as code for software and development tools tied to the chip – to developers. The XuanTie 910 is based on RISC-V’s open architecture.

“By opening up the IP cores of our in-house IoT processors as well as related software stacks and development tools, we hope to assist global developers in building their own RISC-V-based chips in a much more cost-effective way,” Alibaba’s Zhang said.

Further reading: NVIDIA’s Huang Gets Overdue Recognition

Jeff Burt
Jeffrey Burt has been a journalist for more than three decades, the last 20-plus years covering technology. During more than 16 years with eWEEK, he covered everything from data center infrastructure and collaboration technology to AI, cloud, quantum computing and cybersecurity. A freelance journalist since 2017, his articles have appeared on such sites as eWEEK, eSecurity Planet, Enterprise Networking Planet, Enterprise Storage Forum, InternetNews, The Next Platform, ITPro Today, Channel Futures, Channelnomics, SecurityNow, and Data Breach Today.

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