At the Gigaom Structure conference Wednesday, Intel announced that it is partnering with an unnamed company to integrate field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) into its Xeon server processors. The move gives Intel a step up in the competition with alternative options such as ARM.

An FPGA is an integrated circuit that can be programmed to perform one specific set of tasks more quickly than a normal processor. The chosen algorithm remains locked in until the user reprograms the chip. This allows it to perform the algorithm with greater speed and efficiency than a processor that must be able to adapt to a wide variety of tasks. FPGAs are usually placed near processors, but Intel is integrating them directly into its CPUs allowing the two chips to communicate more quickly and can double the performance gains over a non-integrated FPGA.

These new processors are ideal for large companies like Google that have potentially thousands of servers performing repetitive tasks. Microsoft already announced that it is working with similar integrated FPGA Xeon chips, although neither company has stated whether the chips are the same ones from Intel's announcement.

Intel will be using the new FPGAs in two ways. For a cheaper but less customizable solution, a processor with an integrated FPGA can be used to test a certain configuration. If the configuration works, the programming can then be permanently written into the Xeon processor. If a more modular option is desired, companies can purchase servers with the FPGA chips built-in to allow changes in programming as time goes on.

"With these FPGA solutions, it's truly dynamic," Diane Bryant, Intel's data center group senior vice president, said. "You can reprogram for a different program or a different algorithm on the fly." 

Bryant said that Intel is already testing the FPGAs with several cloud computing service providers, although she declined to name any of the companies involved. Intel is keeping most information about the chips confidential for now, including the release date and cost of the product. Bryant did say that the new processors would use the same sockets as regular Xeons, so that companies who already own Xeon-based servers can swap the standard chips for the new integrated FPGA models.

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Tags: Intel Xeon