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Alibaba Develops Its Own 5nm 128-Core Arm-Based Server Chip

T-Head
(Image credit: T-Head)

UPDATE 10/19/2021, 9AM ET: Adding more technical details about the Yitian 710 server processor.

Original Article:

Being one of the largest high-tech companies in the world, Alibaba consumes many x86 CPUs and other third-party technologies. However, off-the-shelf x86 processors are not optimal for all data center workloads, so just like Amazon Web Services and Google, the company is developing its own system-on-chips (SoCs) based on the Arm architecture. 

Alibaba's Yitian 710 server SoC is the industry's first server-grade SoC with 128 Armv9 cores operating at 3.20 GHz that is made using a 5nm fabrication process, reports CnTechPost. The processor also features eight DDR5 memory channels and 96 PCIe 5.0 lanes to provide high-performance cores with plenty of memory bandwidth and I/O performance.

Alibaba says the Yitian 710 can hit a 440 integer score in SPECint2017. That's comparable to the performance of a two-socket machine powered by Intel's 32-core Xeon Platinum 8362 (64 cores at 2.80 GHz).

The Yitian 710 server SoC integrates about 60 billion transistors, making it one of the most complex processors ever developed. For comparison, Nvidia's A100 packs 54 billion transistors, whereas Graphcore's Colossus MK2 has 59.4 billion transistors.

According to Reuters, Alibaba's wholly-owned semiconductor subsidiary T-Head taped out the chip in mid-2021. T-Head was formally introduced on Tuesday. The SoC will be used by Alibaba itself in its data centers. It will not be available to others, so for now, the processor will not compete directly against offerings from AMD, Ampere, or Intel.

"Customizing our own server chips is consistent with our ongoing efforts toward boosting our computing capabilities with better performance and improved energy efficiency," said Jeff Zhang, president of Alibaba Cloud Intelligence and head of Alibaba's research arm Damo Academy, reports Time. "We plan to use the chips to support current and future businesses across the Alibaba Group ecosystem."

The Yitian 710 is currently the most advanced SoC ever developed in China and is the third chip developed by T-Head since its establishment in 2018. However, neither Alibaba nor T-Head has disclosed which Arm cores the processor uses (we have a gut feeling that we're dealing with custom Armv9 cores, but Alibaba has not formally confirmed it) or which foundry (TSMC or Samsung) produces the chip with a 5 nm node. Ampere, a developer of commercial Arm-based server SoCs, uses Arm's Neoverse N1 cores for its 128-core Altra Max M128-30 CPU but plans to switch to proprietary cores with its next-gen processors.

Custom-designed chips allow Alibaba to get the performance and capabilities it needs at predictable power budgets. Furthermore, since the SoCs are developed entirely in-house, the company can also save some money as it will not have to pay a premium for server processors designed by AMD or Intel.

Alibaba isn't the only company developing custom SoCs for performance-demanding applications. AWS and Google are also designing their own processors for their data centers, whereas Apple installs its custom Arm-powered SoCs into its smartphones, tablets, desktops, and laptops.