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Centaur Adds AI to Server Processor

December 3, 2019

Author: Linley Gwennap

Centaur is galloping back into the x86 market with an innovative processor design that combines eight high-performance CPUs with a custom deep-learning accelerator (DLA). The company is the first to announce a server-processor design that integrates a DLA. The new accelerator, called Ncore, delivers better neural-network performance than even the most powerful Xeon, but without incurring the high cost of an external GPU card. The Via Technologies subsidiary began testing the silicon in September; we estimate the first products based on this design could enter production in 2H20, although Via has disclosed no product plans.

Ncore, which operates as a coprocessor, avoids the vogue MAC array, instead relying on a more traditional programmable SIMD engine. But Centaur took the multiple in SIMD to the extreme, designing a unit that processes 4,096 bytes in parallel to achieve peak performance of 20 trillion operations per second (TOPS) for 8-bit integers (INT8). To feed the wide compute unit, the accelerator employs 16MB of private SRAM. Glenn Henry, the Ncore architect, likens this approach to “AVX-32,768,” indicating the SIMD architecture is 64 times wider than Intel’s.

The company also designed a new x86 microarchitecture called CNS, targeting much higher per-clock performance (IPC) than its previous PC-focused CPUs. The new design can decode four x86 instructions per cycle and execute 10 micro-ops in parallel, including three load/store operations. It runs at up to 2.5GHz in TSMC 16nm technology. The eight x86 cores share 16MB of L3 cache. The CHA processor handles four channels for DDR4 DIMMs and provides 44 PCI Express 3.0 lanes. It enables two-socket systems and targets low-cost servers, particularly for edge tasks.

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