Alibaba Cloud challenges AWS with its own custom smartNIC

Who'll board the custom silicon bandwagon next?

Alibaba Cloud offered a peek at its latest homegrown silicon at its annual summit this week, which it calls Cloud Infrastructure Processing Units (CIPU).

The data processing units (DPUs), which we're told have already been deployed in a “handful” of the Chinese giant’s datacenters, offload virtualization functions associated with storage, networking, and security from the host CPU cores onto dedicated hardware.

“The rapid increase in data volume and scale, together with higher demand for lower latency, call for the creation of new tech infrastructure,” Alibaba Cloud Intelligence President Jeff Zhang said in a release.

However, the tech is hardly new, even for Alibaba Cloud. SmartNICs, IPUs, DPUs (call them what you want) have been knocking around hyperscale and cloud datacenters for years now. Alibaba's CIPU appears to be an evolution of the company's X-Dragon smartNIC, designed to compete head on with Amazon Web Services’ Nitro cards.

The exact architecture underpinning Alibaba’s CIPUs is unclear, however, the cards do use a standard PCIe card form factor.

Alibaba claims the accelerator is capable of reducing network latency to as little as 5 microseconds, while improving compute performance in data-intensive AI and big-data Spark deployments by as much as 30 percent, according to the company’s internal benchmarks.

The Register reached out to Alibaba Cloud for more details; we’ll let you know if we hear back.

DPUs have become a hot topic over the past few years as we’ve seen an influx of products from the likes of Intel, Marvell, Fungible, Nvidia, and AMD’s Xilinx and Pensando business units to name just a few.

All of these devices share a common goal: accelerate input/output intensive workloads — common in networking, storage, and security applications — by offloading them to specialized domain-specific accelerators, freeing CPU resources to run tenant workloads in the process.

In this regard, Alibaba’s CIPUs are nothing new, but still notable as being developed in house as opposed to using third-party smartNICs as Google Cloud Platform and others have done.

Alibaba expands custom silicon portfolio

Alibaba’s CIPU comes just months after the cloud provider detailed an in-house microprocessor.

Developed by the company’s T-Head development branch, the Yitian 710 is based on a 5-nanometer manufacturing process, boasts 128 Armv9-compatible CPU cores clocked at 3.2 GHz, and supports the latest DDR5 and PCIe 5.0 standards.

According to Alibaba’s internal benchmarks, the chip is 20 percent more powerful and 50 percent more efficient than the current crop of server processors on the market.

Customers can deploy workloads on the chips now on Alibaba’s Elastic Compute Service (ECS) g8m instances.

Alibaba’s efforts closely mirror those taken by American rival Amazon, which was among the first to pursue custom silicon as a differentiator for its public cloud.

AWS offers a full suite of instances using any combination of its Graviton CPUs, Nitro smartNICs, and Trainium and Inferentia AI processors.

Alibaba is hardly the only cloud vendor now warming up to idea of custom cloud infrastructure. Microsoft is actively deploying Ampere’s Arm-based Altra CPUs in Azure and is rumored to be working on a custom processor of its own. ®

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