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How Intel Builds Custom Chips for Giants of the Web

• Cade Metz via

We know that Facebook writes a lot of the software that underpins its massive social network. And we know it designs its very own computer servers to juggle your every Like, comment, and cat photo. But to get a sense of how deep the tinkering goes inside the company, consider this: Facebook now works with Intel to customize microprocessors for its particular needs.

According to Frank Frankovsky — who oversees hardware design at Facebook — this started as far back as 2009. That’s when the company first asked Intel for certain changes to the design of the silicon chips it builds for computer servers — the machines that drive the internet and the private computer networks inside the world’s businesses. Since then, Frankovsky says, Intel has worked hand-in-hand with the company to accommodate such changes.

For the most part, he explains, these changes are rolled into the same processors that Intel sells to the world at large, though there are cases where the changes are unlikely to benefit anyone but Facebook. “The more insight we can give our technology suppliers about what makes our software work the best, the more we’re able to influence their design roadmaps,” Frankovsky says. “We do influence their roadmaps — way upstream — but then they are able to bring these changes out to all of their customers.”

This longtime collaboration between Facebook and Intel, the world’s dominant chip maker, is just one sign of a larger shift in the multi-billion-dollar market for server chips and other hardware that powers the web’s most popular services. For years, says Intel’s Jason Waxman, the chip giant has worked to tweak chip designs at the request of big-name server manufacturers along the lines of Dell and HP and IBM — original equipment manufacturers, or OEMs — but more recently, the company has been customizing processors for companies along the lines of Facebook — companies that run more computer servers than almost any other operation on the planet.

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