OpenCAPI to Be Folded into CXL

By Agam Shah

August 1, 2022

As the need for speed drives computational workloads, more standards organizations are coalescing around a standard called Compute Express Link – also known as CXL – to eliminate chokepoints inside systems.

One such standards organization, the IBM-backed OpenCAPI Consortium, has signed a letter of intent to merge its assets into the Compute Express Link Consortium, which drives the development of an interconnect that acts as a bridge for system hardware to communicate.

In 2020, Gen-Z, another consortium developing an interconnect standard, initiated a marger with CXL Consortium.

The CXL 2.0 specification, which was revised last year, sets the standards for the CPU, memory, storage and accelerators such as GPUs and AI processors to communicate.

The spec, which is based on PCIe 5.0 standard, sets protocols for a distributed computing infrastructure in which processing can be distributed between CPUs, AI chips, memory and storage. In many cases, the accelerators like GPUs or AI chips – which require more memory and storage – are more important than the CPUs.

“OpenCAPI Consortium assets are complementary to CXL Consortium assets,” Bob Szabo, president of OpenCAPI Consortium, told HPCwire.

The transfer of specifications will break down barriers and foster collaboration for interoperable standards, which will lead to rapid innovation.

“Naturally the intention, and expectation of the outcome is to have one organization driving forward, not two,” Szabo said.

All OpenCAPI Consortium assets, including trademarks, logo and specifications will be assigned to CXL Consortium.

The transfer will include the primary OpenCAPI spec, a plug-in protocol that allows CPUs to link up with a wide range of memory, storage and other chips. The specification’s biggest backer was IBM, who has used it in Power9 and Power10 servers to link up GPUs, FPGAs and other components to its processors. Nvidia and Google, who partnered with IBM on Power chips, were early backers of the specification. However, the spec was never supported by server heavyweights such as Intel or AMD.

OpenCAPI’s Open Memory Interface (OMI) – a specification for memory attached near the processor – is also being transferred to CXL.

Many members and adopters for the standards overlap between the two organizations, Szabo said. The specs will be available from the CXL Consortium, and there will continue to be open-source IP available from OpenCAPI’s GitHub repository.

“All specifications will be available from CXL Consortium. How CXL Consortium further leverages the assets going forward will be determined over time by the CXL Consortium membership as it would have been under OpenCAPI Consortium,” Szabo said.

CXL, which was founded in 2019, has all the major enterprise hardware providers and cloud providers as members, including IBM, which was the force behind OpenCAPI. One exception is Apple, which focuses on consumer hardware.

The CXL specification has also benefited from backing by system building consortiums like Open Compute Project, whose members collaborate on open designs for workloads in the cloud, edge, and data centers.

Chip designers like Intel are adding CXL support to new silicon strategies around chiplets, which takes a modular chip approach by combining various CPUs and accelerators in a tight chip package.

Since its foundation CXL has steamrolled over all the other interconnect standards such as OpenCAPI or CCIX, said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at Insight 64.

It takes a lot of time and effort to develop controllers, and CXL provides a long-term security that the hardware will be relevant on release, Brookwood said.

“There are very few chip microarchitectures, and as a result if you are a developer and you glom onto the right standard, the standard will likely be there when you release a product,” Brookwood said.

CXL has also gained backing as buyers turn their eye on proprietary technology. CXL also brings a new mindset into how systems are built, Brookwood said.

“With CXL you can expand out of the box. Old standards couldn’t do that at the DRAM level and connect to different motherboards on the fly. With CXL you can do that, and a system that has huge amounts of high-speed memory can be reconfigured on the fly over dozens of systems and racks,” Brookwood said.

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