SAN FRANCISCO — It's all about the relationships, says Ronak Singhal, now in his 17th year as a microprocessor engineer at Intel.
For the last several years Singhal has spent much of his time developing relationships with top computer experts in the big Web companies -- Amazon, eBay, Facebook, Google, Microsoft. He collects their requirements and gets their feedback on Intel's latest server chip plans.
"When three of them all tell you they want the same thing, you know you are on to something," Singhal told EE Times during a break in a press briefing about Intel's latest Xeon and Atom server chips.
They don't always agree. So recently Intel has started providing a few of the biggest customers -- including eBay and Facebook -- with custom versions of its microprocessors.
So far, Intel has taken baby steps in this area. For a big customer, it can support something unique in the chip's frequency, power levels, or reliability based on tweaks in firmware or the manufacturing process. For example, chips can be pushed to a higher frequency if they will be replaced after a year, or they can have their ultra-fast turbo modes disabled so they can be guaranteed to last many years.
Ronak Singhal shows the Nehalem-class Xeon chip he helped design.
The next step will be a big one. Intel aims to open the door to creating custom logic for some of the world's biggest datacenters. It is likely to take the form of a block that accelerates some big-data algorithm such as Hadoop. The block could get embedded in an Intel processor or become a standalone chip slipped inside a package next to the CPU.
It's not something Intel is used to doing. The company wrote the book on "copy exact," making chips the same way in any fab anywhere in the world.
But times are changing. Singhal now tracks 15 companies designing ARM-based server microprocessors, all trying to get a piece of his business by offering lower power processors.
Singhal believes some of his customers in the big web companies are actually funding some of the competition in an effort to lower power in their datacenters, their top concern. "They have the money," he says.
Many of these new competitors have their own cash. They include top chipmakers such as Broadcom, Cavium, Marvell, Nvidia, Qualcomm, Texas Instruments, and Intel archrivals AMD and Samsung.