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Israeli tech gives Intel breakthrough in market dominated by competitor

Amazon Web Services will start using processors developed by Israel-based Habana Labs, acquired by Intel; deal ‘makes a crack’ in cloud training market controlled by Nvidia

Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

The Gaudi processor developed by Habana Labs (YouTube screenshot)
The Gaudi processor developed by Habana Labs (YouTube screenshot)

Technology made in Israel is allowing US giant Intel Corp to make a breakthrough in a market dominated by competitor Nvidia Corp.

Amazon Web Services (AWS), the cloud computing services arm of tech giant Amazon, said Tuesday it will soon start offering customers accelerators developed by Intel’s Israel-based subsidiary Habana Labs to enable them to do machine learning work on their cloud services at a lower cost.

Habana’s Gaudi accelerators “deliver up to 40% better price performance” than current graphics processing units used for machine learning workloads, AWS, a world-leading cloud services provider, said in a statement released by Intel.

The adoption of Habana’s technology by AWS is a “watershed moment” for Intel, said Eitan Medina, chief business officer for Habana, in a video call with reporters on Wednesday. The adoption of its Gaudi processors “makes a crack” in the near-monopoly Nvidia had in the cloud computing market for training deep learning models with its GPU processors, he said.

Eitan Medina, Chief Business Officer
Habana Labs, an Intel company (Courtesy)

“Until today, Amazon used only servers based on Nvidia’s GPUs,” he said. Now for the first time AWS will be offering customers, from the first half of 2021, servers that are based on Habana processors, the Gaudi, he said. “This is the first crack in this wall of the exclusive use of Nvidia’s GPUs.”

“This is a watershed moment, a kind of a goal” with regard to a very important customer: Amazon, which is a leading provider of cloud computing services, with the biggest market share and the most experience, he said.

Intel acquired Israel’s Habana in 2019 for $2 billion to boost its artificial intelligence capabilities and to strengthen its portfolio of AI-based accelerators for the cloud and data centers. The acquisition marked the US tech firm’s second largest buy in Israel after Mobileye, which it acquired in 2017 for a whopping $15.3 billion. In May, Intel said it acquired Israeli smart-transit startup Moovit for $900 million.

Habana’s Gaudi processors are specifically designed for training deep learning models that include natural language processing, object detection and machine learning training, classification, recommendation and personalization, Intel said.

“As the world’s leading cloud provider, AWS is used by developers around the world to train their artificial intelligence (AI) models,” Intel said in the statement on Tuesday. However, the increase in complexity of machine learning models drives up both the time and cost to train, especially as more data becomes available and developers look to refine their models. The Gaudi processors are designed to address these needs by delivering cost efficiency and high performance, the statement said.

AWS “gets direct feedback from customers asking them to lower the cost” of training their models on the cloud, Medina said in the video call. As more and more companies start appreciating the “phenomenal opportunity” they have in integrating AI into their business processes, for this to actually happen “models they use must be more precise, effective” and cheaper.

Intel, a key supplier of processors for PCs and data centers, has seen growing competition from companies like Advanced Micro Devices (ADM) and Nvidia Corp, which outsource their manufacturing. The firm has also suffered from production delays, and customers like Apple have also started making their own chips.

New Intel CEO Robert Swan, who was named as the technology firm’s chief executive on January 31, 2019. (Credit: Intel Corporation)

Intel’s shares on the Nasdaq have declined 12% in the past 12 months, bringing the firm to a market value of $203 billion, compared with a 156% surge in Nvidia shares in the same period, leading it to a market value of $331.5 billion.

Habana Labs, founded in 2016 by David Dahan and Ran Halutz, uses artificial intelligence to improve the processing performance and power consumption of chips and lower the costs of producing them. The processors are aimed at the specific needs of training deep neural networks.

The firm introduced its Gaudi AI processors in June 2019.

Despite the acquisition, the Israeli firm has continued to operate independently and keep its local offices open. The acquisition was completed in January 2020, and since then Habana’s R&D team in Israel has grown from 180 to 650 workers, Medina said, mainly with workers from Intel.

AWS is not the first customer to use the Gaudi, Medina said, but it is the first cloud service provider to announce its use of the Gaudi, and AWS is the “most important” customer in terms of market share, he said.

“We have made a dent in the most important place,” he said, as AWS is the “biggest guy out there.” Grabbing additional market share “will take time,” he added. “We are on the right path.”

Habana is working on a second generation of its Gaudi processors, Medina said.

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