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Customized Amazon chips could lead to lower AWS prices

Amazon Web Services has made new hires with a background in CPU chip design. IT pros hope it leads to more efficient custom silicon and lower prices.

Amazon Web Services has made new hires that point to an effort to create custom chips inside its servers, and IT pros hope such a project will lead to lower prices.

Amazon Web Services (AWS) already customizes hardware at the storage, networking and server level, so it's no surprise it's interested in chip optimization, as well. The company posted a job listing for a CPU and system architect and, according to LinkedIn profiles, it recently hired new employees in hardware engineering -- all of whom hail from the now-defunct Calxeda, an ARM chip specialist.

Taking advantage of the efficiencies of scale introduced by custom hardware is only going to improve [AWS prices].

Mike Ryan,
consultant for Epitech

Specifically, the job titles listed on LinkedIn profiles include hardware development engineer, hardware design engineer, director of silicon optimizations, and manager of hardware engineering, silicon optimizations. Most of these profiles list jobs located in Austin, Texas.

Sources also say talk of an Amazon chip have been circulating for months, and such customization would not only be in line with AWS' hardware customization strategy, but would also follow in the footsteps of fellow Web-scale competitors -- such as Facebook and Google -- who also customize chips to suit specific needs.

"It goes right to the bottom line," said one cloud consultant who requested anonymity. "At the scale AWS is at … even if [it gains] 1%, 2% or 3% efficiency, that's millions of dollars each month."

AWS already has a history of passing such savings along to customers, which is what IT pros hope will happen here.

"Custom chip design is all about specialization," said Aaron Rankin, AWS customer and CTO for Chicago-based Sprout Social, makers of social media tools for businesses. "Intel or AMD x86 chips … are generalists. They're great for running Linux, but inefficient for a narrower set of services."

Enter custom silicon, which can do more with less, and therefore can save power or execute more instructions, on average, per clock cycle.

"Cloud hosting is a utility business and the winner will be the one that lowers prices the furthest," Rankin added. "It's a rat race to the bottom."

These hires are "a great sign," said Mike Ryan, a consultant for Epitech, a cloud consulting firm for startups.

"Amazon is already lowering their prices frequently, and taking advantage of the efficiencies of scale introduced by custom hardware is only going to improve that," he said.

Still, any kind of CPU customization won't happen overnight, sources said. ARM chip technology is still being developed, and does not yet support 64-bit architectures, but this is expected to change in the third quarter of this year.

AWS declined to comment.

Beth Pariseau is senior news writer for SearchAWS. Write to her at or follow @PariseauTT on Twitter.

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It's funny to hear the in-the-know Intel folks (off the record) talk about how the "specialized for AWS" chips that AWS talked about at re:Invent are the same chips that are being sold by Intel to all the web-scale companies. AWS may have enabled a specific feature in those chips, but they aren't unique. 

Maybe down the road they get the ARM-in-the-DC chips specific to AWS, but as you said, that's many years down to the road to develop both the HW and SW to deliver the power/performance/clustering needed.