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Google is investing in custom silicon for its servers and perhaps Chromebooks, too

Today on the Google Cloud blog, Google published a story titled ‘The past, present and future of custom compute at Google.’ For most, this is a title that could go unnoticed and the importance of what is happening could go by without much thought. For us here at Chrome Unboxed, however, we like to read between the lines a bit and think about what could be happening behind the scenes when new hires are made at Google that could have wide-reaching affect on Chromebooks and Chrome OS as a whole First and foremost, the post highlights a new hire made recently by Google in Uri Frank as the new VP of Engineering for server chip design. Google has this to say about Uri and his experience:

Uri brings nearly 25 years of custom CPU design and delivery experience, and will help us build a world-class team in Israel. We’ve long looked to Israel for novel technologies including Waze, Call Screen, flood forecasting, high-impact features in Search, and Velostrata’s cloud migration tools, and we look forward to growing our presence in this global innovation hub.

via the Google Cloud Blog

The post goes on to state that Google has some experience in this field of chip manufacture, highlighting things like the Tensor Proceesing Unit (TPU) that helps power real-time voice search, Video Processing Units (VPU) that help real-time video communication far more scalable, and OpenTitan that aids in hardware-based security measures. While those bits and pieces are solid additions to Google’s silicon portfolio, the time has come for them to begin development of custom SoCs (System on a Chip) for their servers. With the existing setup of multiple parts from different vendors, Google’s servers are far from fully optimized the way they could be with custom SoCs built with the server’s specific needs in mind. To hear Google say it:

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Instead of integrating components on a motherboard where they are separated by inches of wires, we are turning to “Systems on Chip” (SoC) designs where multiple functions sit on the same chip, or on multiple chips inside one package. In other words, the SoC is the new motherboard.

On an SoC, the latency and bandwidth between different components can be orders of magnitude better, with greatly reduced power and cost compared to composing individual ASICs on a motherboard. Just like on a motherboard, individual functional units (such as CPUs, TPUs, video transcoding, encryption, compression, remote communication, secure data summarization, and more) come from different sources. We buy where it makes sense, build it ourselves where we have to, and aim to build ecosystems that benefit the entire industry. 

via the Google Cloud Blog

Clearly, Google is ready to make the move to custom silicon for the places it needs to do so, and servers make the most sense at this point for that sort of move. Having a fully-integrated hardware stack is not just important – it is valuable. Just look at what Apple has already accomplished with their M1 silicon used in the new Macbook Pro and Mac Mini. When hardware and software are aligned from the ground up, things work in a more integrated fashion and this provides better performance on a smaller energy footprint. With the cloud being Google’s primary concern, it only makes sense for them to move in this direction from a functional and financial standpoint.

Yeah, but what about Chromebooks?

It needs to be kept front and center that much of Google’s existing cloud infrastructure is built on Chromium OS (which is the backbone of Chrome OS). With this in mind, it only follows that moves to create custom silicon for Google Cloud servers would pivot pretty seamlessly into custom silicon made just for Chromebooks and Chrome OS. While this new hire and the projects he’ll be directing may not be directly aimed at making new SoCs for Chroembooks, it stands to reason that much of the work that happens to build a new chip for Google’s servers could be repurposed to move that same chip over to not only a Google-made Chromebook, but to the entire army of Chromebook manufacturers.

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We’ve talked a lot about vertical integration and why chips being custom-made for the software they primarily run is so important, and I genuinely think this move announced by Google today will play a big part in the eventuality of Google-made silicon in a Chromebook in the future. While this all could technically be unrelated, I don’t feel that’s the case at all and I look forward to the first news we eventually hear of a new SoC built 100% for Chrome OS that makes our beloved Chromebooks that much better.

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