New at Amazon: its own chips for cloud computing


Large software companies do not settle for software, they build computer chips. The latest evidence comes from Amazon, which announced last Monday that its cloud computing division has created its own chips to power websites and other services of its customers. The chips, dubbed Graviton, are based on the same technology used for smartphones and tablets. This approach has been the subject of many discussions in the cloud industry but has never been tested on a large scale.

Amazon's surprise decision echoes Google's efforts to create its own chips to power artificial intelligence algorithms operating in its data centers, which it also rents to customers from the cloud. Amazon says it has taken charge of the delicate design of chips to better integrate software and hardware into its giant data centers, enabling it to offer new, cheaper services.

This is not possible with standard Intel or AMD chips, designed to satisfy many customers, said Matt Garman, vice president of the Amazon project. "We can do some very specific things so that the processor works very efficiently in our environment," he says. "This results in lower costs." According to Garman, customers with early access to Graviton-powered servers have reduced their bills for some services by almost half.

Although Amazon is best known for its online store, most of the company's profits come from its cloud computing unit, Amazon Web Services. AWS earns money by hiring computing power and storage from other companies and government agencies. These customers can now choose to rent servers powered by Graviton chips. Amazon unveiled the project Monday night at its annual conference on Cloud Computing in Las Vegas.

According to Garman, some customers have achieved 45% savings by switching to new servers for existing Amazon offerings powered by conventional chips. Don MacAskill, CEO of the SmugMug photo hosting site, said in a statement that his company had recorded a 40% cost reduction by migrating some software to servers equipped with new chips. According to Garman, Amazon's eCommerce division is also considering using Graviton servers.

The news that Amazon has created its own server chips has surprised semiconductor experts. Cloud computing companies typically assemble their infrastructure by purchasing hardware from chips, memory and other peripherals. Designing a server processor is a complex project that has probably taken several years, says Kevin Krewell, Senior Analyst at Tirias Research.

Amazon explains that Graviton was created by a team that joined the company in 2015, through the acquisition of a startup called Annapurna Labs. The group had previously created small accessory chips for Amazon servers, not the complex processor in the heart of a computer.

Adopting this more expensive and more complicated component makes sense because of Amazon's huge size and the particular technology it relies on. Intel dominates the server chip market; He customizes his chips for larger customers, including Amazon, but in a limited way, explains Krewell. With Graviton, Amazon has a chip that is better integrated with the design of its servers and software. "By building your own chip, Amazon has more control over their destiny," says Krewell. "I would wait until they continue."

Others have pursued similar strategies. Google is on the third generation of its chips, which feed machine learning algorithms, making it less expensive to operate services such as voice recognition. Similarly, Apple has been building every iPhone model since 2010 around an internally designed processor, paving the way for new features such as Face ID and Augmented Reality support. Amazon has worked with the same Taiwanese chip maker as Apple, TSMC, for its own chip project.

Amazon's Graviton processor also innovates by leveraging the ARM architecture used in smartphone processors, but was not widespread in data centers earlier. ARM chips are built on licensed designs from UK-based ARM Holdings, which was acquired for $ 32 billion in 2016 by the Japanese conglomerate Softbank. They are less powerful than high-end Intel processors, but are generally less expensive and more energy efficient. According to Mr. Krewell, even on a small scale, efficiency and cost savings can be considerable. AWS operates millions of servers around the world.

Start-ups and mobile chip companies have been trying to market servers with ARM chips for years without much success, arguing that they could be cheaper and offer better energy efficiency. Microsoft tested the idea in partnership with mobile chip maker Qualcomm, but did not launch the technology for commercial purposes.

When asked if Amazon plans the successors of the initial Graviton chips, Garman responds cautiously. "I expect we'll probably do it," he says. Patrick Moorhead, senior analyst at Moor Insights and Strategy, said the company's project could finally turn ARM servers into mainstream solutions. He expects Microsoft to quickly set up his own ARM project.

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