Intel Stopping Nervana Development to Focus on Habana AI Chips

By John Russell

February 3, 2020

Just two months after acquiring Israeli AI chip start-up Habana Labs for $2 billion, Intel is stopping development of its existing Nervana neural network processor line. Instead, Intel will focus on technology from Habana whose inference (Goya) chip and training chip (Gaudi) are in the market and have gained traction. Intel had purchased Nervana Systems in 2016 for roughly $400 million in an effort to jump-start its AI chip efforts.

Karl Freund, lead analyst for HPC and deep learning for Moor Insights, broke the news last Friday which has since been widely picked up. Intel will reportedly continue to support customer commitments for the Nervana NNP-I (Spring Hill) inference chip but stop work on the NNP-T (Spring Crest) training chip which it was still touting at last summer’s Hot Chips conference.

Intel’s now-discontinued NNP-T hardware

“Apparently, Intel received feedback from its engineers and from large customers that the second Nervana designs, code-named Spring Hill and Spring Crest, just didn’t pass muster for these high-performance workloads,” wrote Freund in a column on Forbes.

“I suspect these customers pointed to Habana as the preferred platform that can compete with NVIDIA. Of special interest to Intel was probably the fact that the Habana Gaudi chip has an on-die 100Gb Ethernet fabric that supports RDMA over Converged Ethernet (ROCE). Since a Mellanox NIC with ROCE can cost well over $1000 per card, Intel will now have a chip that can scale at low cost to thousands of nodes to handle the emerging very large neural network models used in applications such as natural language processing,” wrote Freund.

“I think it is safe to assume that a customer like Facebook made its opinions clear to Intel: you need to get a better chip. It would make no sense whatsoever for Intel to buy Habana and still hang on to Nervana just to save face. It already has Xeon, Altera, MobileEye, Movidius and coming GPUs. Something had to give, and that was Nervana. So, yes, this was a smart and bold move by Intel to build a future for themselves in the fast-moving AI acceleration space.”

Intel issued the following statement:

“After acquiring Habana Labs in December and with input from our customers, we are making strategic updates to the data center AI acceleration roadmap. We will leverage our combined AI talent and technology to build leadership AI products.

“We will bolster the current and next generation of Habana Goya and Gaudi with Intel’s AI hardware and software innovations. The Habana product line offers the strong, strategic advantage of a unified, highly-programmable architecture for both inference and training. By moving to a single hardware architecture and software stack for data center AI acceleration, our engineering teams can join forces and focus on delivering more innovation, faster to our customers. As part of this update we plan to deliver on current customer commitments for the Intel NNP-I inference accelerator (code-named “Spring Hill”) and cease development of the Intel NNP-T (code-named “Spring Crest”).

“This roadmap decision aligns to Intel’s AI Strategy and our commitment to deliver heterogeneous AI solutions that fit our customers’ evolving power and performance needs – from the intelligent edge to the data center.”

Link to Freund’s column on Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/moorinsights/2020/01/31/intel-lays-out-strategy-for-ai-its-habana/

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