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Intel reveals pay-to-play Xeon features with software-defined silicon

Pay for features like SGX through OEMs

Updated Intel's software-defined silicon service will let organizations pay money to enable features that are hardwired into future Xeon server processors such as Intel Software Guard Extensions, signaling a major shift in how users pay for computer chips.

The x86 giant's software-defined silicon (SDSi) service is officially known as "Intel On Demand," and while the company has not made a proper announcement, Twitter users on Tuesday spotted a new page on Intel's website outlining a list of paid Xeon features, a list of server vendors and IT providers who are supporting the initiative, and information about two ways of using the service.

We have good reason to believe Intel On Demand will be introduced with the 4th-Gen Xeon Scalable CPUs, code-named Sapphire Rapids, which will launch early next year after several delays. For one, the list of paid Xeon features include those that will debut in Sapphire Rapids, and a few members of the press viewed a recent video where executives discuss 4th-Gen Xeon serving as a "test ground" for SDSi.

SDSi has been a great source of curiosity and anxiety in the IT world because of how it will charge users money for features already baked into the silicon of processors. What Intel has not made explicitly clear is whether SDSi will be forced onto users buying next-gen Xeons. A charitable reading of the new Intel On Demand page and a reference to the service in May suggest that SDSi will be available as an option.

Intel did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

How Intel On Demand will work

According to the new Intel On Demand page, SDSi will be available in two ways.

The first is an activation model, which allows users to enable features on Xeon processors through a one-time activation. This involves a six-step configuration process, where the customer makes an upgrade request to an infrastructure provider, which then shares the request with Intel to receive a license for the customer, according to an official diagram.

The provider then enables the license in the customer's servers. State information of the customer's SDSi-enabled datacenter is shared with the provider and Intel after.

The Intel On Demand features users can pay to activate consist of:

  • Intel Software Guard Extensions, a security feature that is meant to protect data in encryption portions of the CPU's memory.
  • Intel Quick Assist Technology, which can accelerate data encryption and compression workloads by offloading through an offload mechanism.
  • Intel Dynamic Load Balancer, a hardware-managed load balancing system in the processor that is designed for telecom applications.
  • Intel In-Memory Analytics Accelerator, which is meant to speed up compression and decompression for big data applications and in-memory analytic databases.
  • Intel Data Streaming Accelerator, which aims to eliminate bottlenecks in data movements between the CPU cores, memory, caches, attached storage, and networked storage devices.

The latter three features will debut in the upcoming Sapphire Rapids chips.

The second way to use SDSi is a consumption model, which allows users to use Intel On Demand through as-a-service offerings like Hewlett Packard Enterprise's GreenLake platform. This will let organizations "harness Intel Xeon processors to scale capacity, optimize value and dynamically align your infrastructure to meet business demand," according to the Intel On Demand page.

Who's supporting Intel On Demand, and what comes next

Intel lists seven server vendors and IT service providers who will support SDSi's activation model or consumption model, or both. This includes Lenovo, which will use Intel On Demand for its TruScale IT-as-a-service portfolio. Other firms backing the SDSi service include Supermicro, Inspur, H3C, phoenixNAP, and Variscale. Intel's server business, the Datacenter Solutions Group, will also support SDSi.

It's not a surprise to see Intel aligned with server vendors who are pushing as-a-service consumption models, which purport to provide organizations with greater flexibility in how their infrastructure is configured and give them a way to spread out equipment costs, rather than paying for all the kit upfront.

Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger has previously stated that he wants to significantly increase the company's revenue streams from software and services.

There are still unanswered questions about Intel's SDSi service, including how the costs will compare between regular Xeon-powered infrastructure and datacenters running SDSi. Besides a reference in a May press release, The chip giant had been quiet about Intel On Demand up until now from a PR perspective. The only other details have come out through a Linux kernel mailing list and a GitHub page.

In an October video reportedly seen by Club386, Intel fellow Ronak Singhal said that SDSi will essentially act as a "try-before-you-buy program," letting users test new features before implementing them into applications for production.

Intel datacenter executive Lisa Spelman, in the same video, added that the company plans to "ramp SDSi heavier" in the next generation of Xeon Scalable CPUs. That's likely a reference to Emerald Rapids, which is expected to launch in the second half of 2023, last time we checked. ®

Updated to add

After publication of this story, an Intel spokesperson confirmed to The Register that the company will introduce Intel On Demand with Sapphire Rapids.

Critically, the Intel representative said SDSi is an optional service that gives organizations a new and flexible way of paying for Xeon processors and the features they need. This means anyone will be able to buy 4th-Gen Xeon Scalable with the full features unlocked, like they have with any other generation of server chips.

Here's the full statement, for your peace of mind: "Customers will not be forced to pay for features through Intel On Demand."

"On the contrary, On Demand with 4th Generation Xeon Scalable processors gives customers the distinct flexibility to select fully featured premium SKUs or the opportunity to pick and choose the features that matter most to their business at any time throughout the lifecycle of the Xeon processor. This industry-first offering is allowing Intel to evolve with our customers, cater to their unique needs and deliver what they truly want."

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