Intel, the world’s largest manufacturer of computer chips, once sold standard forms of its x-86 processors by the millions, but half of the chips it’ll sell to public clouds — an increasingly vital part of its sales — will be completely customized.
“We have never said no to a custom solution,” said Diane Bryant, the head of Intel’s data center business. “We get orders from the tens of thousands to the hundreds of thousands.”
Public clouds are computer systems accessible to anyone. For example, Amazon Web Services, Google Compute, and Microsoft Azure are all public clouds that frequently sell their computer power or data storage. One recent study also found that about 60% of businesses also use services like public clouds to perform IT-related operations as well.
Since these public clouds are reaching millions of people, they need to work as well as is possible, which is why there’s such a high demand for custom chips, Bryant explains.
“[These companies] are running a million servers, so floor space, power, cooling, people — you want to optimize everything,” she said. “The name of the game is customization.”
Case in point, eBay wanted to install a hyper-efficient cooling system, and so it asked Intel to make chips that had a superior thermal tolerance, which allowed them to be worked even harder.
Though there’s an obvious demand for custom chips, it seems a little odd for Intel to suddenly start taking so many custom jobs. After all, it made heaps of profit churning out tens of millions of cookie-cutter chips. Why even bother with custom chips?
For two reasons, it seems. First, Intel’s chip fabrication plants have become so automated that creating custom chips is not as laborious as it sounds. All it takes to leave out a core or change some other property of the chip is to input a few new commands into the machine. Second, it’s because there’s profit to be made there. Clients are willing to pay extra for a special run, or pay an engineering fee.
“As the dependency on technology increases, you have more workloads going across greater amounts of infrastructure,” said Bryant. “The name of the game is customization.”