Alibaba Cloud challenges AWS by announcing its own custom smartNIC, an accelerator expected to boost compute performance for AI and big data applications by up to 30%


Alibaba Cloud unveiled a new, in-house designed accelerator at its annual summit on Monday to strengthen its cloud-native data centers. This system, called the Cloud Infrastructure Processing Unit (CIPU), runs in several data centers powered by Alibaba Group’s cloud computing arm. CIPU enables Alibaba Cloud to improve the performance of networks, storage, security and computing power for customers by offloading virtualization functions from servers to dedicated hardware. It should offer performance gains of up to 30%.

“The rapid increase in data volume and size as well as increasing demand for lower latency requires the creation of a new technology infrastructure,” Jeff Zhang, president of Alibaba Cloud Intelligence, said in a speech at summit, held almost this year. . This launch is in response to increasing cloud computing needs. According to IDC, global data storage needs will increase from 33 zettabytes in 2018 to 175 zettabytes by 2025, equivalent to the amount of data stored on approximately 7 trillion laptops.

IDC estimates that at that time, approximately 49% of data stored worldwide will remain in public cloud environments, making cloud data centers new data repositories for businesses. These predictions encouraged the world’s leading cloud vendors to start designing chips that are typically focused on cloud use cases. SmartNICs, IPUs, DPUs (call them what you like) have been circulating in hyperscale and cloud data centers for several years. It appears that Alibaba’s Cloud Infrastructure Processing Unit (CIPU) is an evolution of the company’s X-Dragon smartNIC.

But what is a smartNIC? The smartNIC – for smart network interface card (NIC) – is a programmable accelerator that makes data center, security and storage networks efficient and flexible. SmartNICs eliminate server CPUs from the growing number of tasks required to manage modern distributed applications. They consist of various connected, often configurable units that give them intelligence. These silicon blocks act as a board of experts that makes decisions about how to process and route data packets as they pass through the data center.

Most of these blocks are highly specialized in hardware units called accelerators that perform communication tasks more efficiently than CPUs. Some are flexible units that users can program to meet their evolving needs and keep pace with emerging network protocols. According to experts in the field, this combination of programmable accelerators and cores enables smartNICs to offer both performance and flexibility with exceptional value for money. Alibaba Cloud’s X-Dragon smartNIC was designed from the ground up to compete directly with AWS Nitro cards.

Alibaba claims that its new accelerator, CIPU, is able to reduce network latency to just 5 microseconds, while improving computational performance with Spark AI and data-intensive large data deployments by up to 30%. However, the exact architecture underlying Alibaba’s CIPU is unclear, as the cards use the standard PCIe card form factor. In addition, the accelerator was launched shortly after the new ARM Yitian 710 128-core server processor clocked at 3.2 GHz. Developed by Alibaba, it benefits from 5 nm engraving and consists of 60 billion transistors.

DPUs have been a hot topic over the past few years, with the influx of products from Intel, Marvell, Fungible, Nvidia, and AMD’s Xilinx and Pensando business units, to name a few. All of these devices have the same goal: to accelerate I/O intensive workloads – typically in networking, storage, and security applications – by offloading them to domain -focused accelerators, liberation of network resources. processor to run client workloads. Amazon seems to be leading the development of smartNIC so far.

In this regard, Alibaba’s CIPUs are not new, but they are different because they are built in-house and not using third-party smartNICs as the Google Cloud Platform (GCP) and others do. . According to Alibaba’s internal tests, the Yitian 710 is 20% more powerful and 50% more efficient than the server processors currently available on the market. The Chinese Internet giant has announced that customers can deploy workloads on chips today at Alibaba’s g8m “Elastic Compute Service” (ECS) instances.

Along with the Apsara Cloud operating system, CIPU is supposed to be the heart of the next generation of cloud computing infrastructure. Moreover, Alibaba’s efforts closely reflect that of its U.S. competitor Amazon, which was one of the first to make custom silicon a distinction for its public cloud.

AWS offers a full range of opportunities using combinations of its Graviton chips, Nitro smartNICs, and Trainium and Inferentia artificial intelligence processors. Finally, Alibaba is not the only cloud service provider interested in the idea of ​​a custom cloud infrastructure. Microsoft is actively deploying Ampere’s Arm-based Altra processors in Azure and is reportedly working on its own custom processor.

Source: Alibaba Cloud

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