IBM Open-Sources Power ISA, Shares CPU, OpenCAPI Reference Designs

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IBM has taken new steps to open the Power architecture further and expand access to its capabilities. Back in 2013, IBM launched the OpenPower Foundation to allow would-be customers to license IBM designs and collaborate with each other. Now, the company has open-sourced the entire Power ISA and contributed a softcore design to the effort, suitable for running on an FPGA. The OpenPower Foundation, which was founded back in 2013, will now become part of the Linux Foundation and the entire project will be overseen by that organization.

IBM has been turning towards open source as a method for reinvigorating its hardware business and stoking interest in its own ecosystem. In addition to open-sourcing the Power ISA, the company has also contributed designs for its Open Coherent Accelerator Processor Interface (OpenCAPI) and Open Memory Interface (OMI). These are the interface protocols that attach the CPUSEEAMAZON_ET_135 See Amazon ET commerce to the rest of the system, and they’re critical to making the total project work. OpenCAPI and OMI are both architecture-agnostic and could theoretically be adapted for usage in both x86 and Power systems, should vendors build compatible solutions.

Ken King, general manager of OpenPower at IBM, told Next Platform that the plan to open source the ISA had been a long time coming:

We started OpenPower six years ago because the industry was seeing the decline of Moore’s Law, and we were seeing the need for more powerful systems to support HPC, artificial intelligence, and data analytics. We needed to find other ways to drive system performance, and with limitations on the processor, the ability to integrate and innovate up and down the stack was becoming more critical. This led to things like NVLink with Nvidia, a close relationship with Mellanox on interconnects, and OpenCAPI for other devices, and we have seen some progress here.

But we are also seeing a shift in the industry, with companies moving to more open hardware. IBM opening up Power to the point where we would license the CPU RTL to others so they could design their own processors was limited in its effect because there were not that many people who wanted to spend many hundreds of millions of dollars – not for license fees, but for full development – to create their own high-end CPU. We did make some progress in opening up our reference designs, and there are over 20 vendors who are now making Power-based systems.

We are seeing interesting developments with the nascent RISC-V architecture, and hyperscalers are hiring their own chip designers and building their own CPUs and interconnects. They are getting into the hardware space, even if they are not going to be hardware vendors, to drive that performance.


OpenCAPI roadmap.

Under the Linux Foundation, IBM and other members will vote on the future of the standard, including feature set expansions and new capabilities. IBM can continue to make changes to its own ISA for its own purposes, but all other modifications require a membership vote. Members are required to maintain compatibility with the base ISA. Permission to make a non-compliant change will require a unanimous vote. King has openly stated that he hopes Intel will be willing to explore the benefits of using OpenCAPI now that the standard is available in this method, leading to a convergence of support between OpenCAPI and CXL, Intel’s competing interconnect standard.

IBM is hoping that completely open-sourcing the ISA will spur adoption and development. There’s some reason for optimism. Another open-source ISA, RISC-V, has been generating many headlines and interest from various silicon vendors. Current RISC-V CPUs, however, are all low-end embedded hardware. In theory, Power might be an easier lift if its toolchains are more mature and better-featured.

“The opening of the Power ISA, an architecture with a long and distinguished history, will help the open hardware movement continue to gain momentum,” Mateo Valero, Director of Barcelona Supercomputing Center, told InsideHPC. “BSC, which has collaborated with IBM for more than two decades, is excited that IBM’s announcements today provide additional options to initiatives pursuing innovative new processor and accelerator development with freedom of action.”

Though it hasn’t spent much time in the limelight of late, Power was once a major challenger to Intel’s competing x86 architecture in the server world. In recent years, the OpenPower initiative has enjoyed support from a number of companies, with over 250 members as of 2016. Today, it still enjoys market share in the HPC space — the Summit and Sierra supercomputers are #1 and #2 in the world. The third machine is based on custom Sunway architecture. The highest-powered x86 computer is China’s Tianhe-2A, based on the Xeon E5-2692v2. There’s nothing stopping a company from taking Power into new markets (at least in theory), though it would be quite difficult to convince smartphone vendors to rally around Power as opposed to ARM. Still, open-sourcing the architecture can’t hurt its uptake effort.

We’d expect to see the most energy and excitement around Power in servers and HPC because that’s where the core of IBM’s efforts have historically been focused. But we wouldn’t be surprised to see the ISA popping up in other places, either.

Feature Image: IBM Power8 microprocessor 

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AMD Reports Q2 2019 Market Share as Intel Sticks to Its Guns on Pricing

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Over the past month, AMD let fly with two-thirds of its 7nm product lineup. Both the desktop and server spaces have now been refreshed with 7nm CPUs. Intel’s response? Meh.

Let’s do the market share data first. Heading into Q2, AMD has a series of pushes and drags on its market performance. Positive factors include Intel’s ongoing CPU shortage (expected to peak in Q2 2019) and the strong overall market response to Ryzen in desktop, laptop, and server. Negative factors include ongoing trade disputes with China and the possibility of a 12/14nm sales slowdown as the 7nm launch approached.

Data on AMD’s market share in desktop, server, and laptops was provided by Dean McCarron of Mercury Research via THG. We’ve covered Mercury Research’s figures before — sticking with one firm allows us to create an apples-to-apples comparison for how AMD’s market share is evolving over time. There’s good news on multiple fronts for the smaller CPU manufacturer:


Data by Dean McCarron, Mercury Research. Chart by ExtremeTech

AMD’s desktop market share was flat in Q2, at 17.1 percent of the channel. This isn’t necessarily surprising. AMD has been cutting prices on its older 2000 series parts to stimulate uptake, but there was an unmistakable surge of interest in third-generation RyzenSEEAMAZON_ET_135 See Amazon ET commerce after those chips launched. We don’t know how strong the surge will be, but European retailer Mindfactory released July sales data showing that AMD shipments skyrocketed after July 7. The DIY retail market for CPUs is typically estimated to be between 10-20 percent of the space. If AMD continues to enjoy high retail demand, we will see that reflected in the Q3 2019 figures for overall desktop market share. As always, when considering data from a single company or source, keep in mind that it reflects information at that specific retailer, not the wider market.

Notebook share is the major winner, both year-on-year and quarter-on-quarter. AMD has picked up two percentage points of share since the beginning of the year and grown its market share by 1.6x relative to Q2 2018. The challenge for the company will be keeping that share as Intel’s CPU shortage lessens. Some analysts have predicted that AMD would lose its gains in this area as Intel shipped more cores; we’ll see what Q3 shows us in that regard.

The server market continues to tick upwards, with AMD claiming 3.4 percent of the space now, up from 1.4 percent the previous year. AMD didn’t hit its previous goal of taking 5 percent of the entire server market by Q4 2018 (the company told us earlier this year that it believed it had secured at least 5 percent of the 2S / dual-socket server space). We’re not concerned by the relatively slow server ramp — the Epyc CPUs AMD just launched are the most impressive performance leap the company has ever delivered in that market.

Overall, AMD’s market share figures show a company executing well and gaining share. AMD has predicted that its Compute and Graphics revenue will increase by 1.2x over 2018 when the impact of slowing semi-custom design sales is taken into effect (Xbox One and PS4 sales are falling as the new console cycle builds momentum).

As for Intel, the larger CPU vendor is sticking to its guns. Intel’s August CPU Price List gives the expected list prices in 1K units for its complete product lineup. There are no changes whatsoever. These official price guides don’t necessarily reflect the price that chips are selling for in the retail channel, and they certainly don’t reflect the price that OEMs pay in bulk, but they represent Intel’s officially communicated pricing.


The full document is available for your perusal, but it looks like the above straight down the line. Intel may adjust its pricing quietly behind the scenes, or it may make larger, formal cuts at a later date, but the firm is sticking to its guns for now. From Intel’s perspective, this makes good sense. AMD may have just launched an impressive suite of products, but Intel presumably wants to see how the market responds to them before it makes a determination about what to do.

Intel’s response to AMD since 2017 has been to avoid direct price cuts and instead introduce different products at adjusted price points. That might not work in server, given that Cascade Lake has already launched and there aren’t going to be opportunities to respond to AMD with a new family deployment in the near term. Intel might cut prices later this year, or opt to wait to change its product alignments until Cooper Lake or Ice Lake are ready to ship. For now, AMD continues to gain market share with expected improvements in the back half of 2019 related to the 7nm Ryzen refresh.

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Welcome to the Second Golden Age of AMD

On Wednesday, August 7, AMD launched the 7nm refresh of its Epyc CPU family. These new cores don’t just one-up Intel in a particular category, they deliver enormous improvements in every category. AMD has cut its per-core pricing, increased IPC, and promises to deliver far more CPU cores than an equivalent Intel socket.

There’s only been one other time that AMD came close to beating Intel so decisively — the introduction of dual-core Opteron and Athlon 64 X2 in 2005. Epyc’s launch this week feels bigger. In 2005, AMD’s dual cores matched Intel on core count, outperformed Intel clock-for-clock and core-for-core, and were quite expensive. This time, AMD is going for the trifecta, with higher performance, more cores, and lower per-core pricing. It’s the most serious assault on Intel’s high-end Xeon market that the company has ever launched.

Industry analysts have already predicted that AMD’s server market share could double within the next 12 months, hitting 10 percent by Q2 2020. Achieving larger share in the data center market is a critical goal for AMD. A higher share of the enterprise and data center market won’t just increase in AMD’s revenue, it’ll help stabilize the company’s financial performance. One of AMD’s critical weaknesses for the last two decades has been its reliance on low-end PCs and retail channel sales. Both of these markets tend to be sensitive to recessions. The low-end PC market also offers the least revenue per-socket and the smallest margins. Enterprise business cycles are less impacted by downturns. AMD briefly achieved its goal of substantial enterprise market share in 2005 – 2006, when its server market share broke 20 percent.

Enthusiasts like to focus on AMD’s desktop performance, but outside of gaming, overall PC sales are declining. Growth in narrow categories like 2-in-1’s has not been sufficient to offset the general sales decline. While no one expects the PC market to fail, it’s clear that the 2011 downturn was not a blip. It still makes sense for AMD to fight to expand its share of the desktop and mobile markets, but it makes even more sense to fight for a share of the server space, where revenue and unit shipments have both grown over the past 8 years. 2019 may be a down year for server sales but the larger trend towards moving workloads into the cloud shows no signs of slowing down.

Why Rome is a Threat to Intel

In our discussions of Rome, we’ve focused primarily on the Epyc 7742. This graph, from ServetheHome, shows Epyc versus Xeon performance across more SKUs. Take a look down the stack:


Data and graph by ServeTheHome

A pair of AMD Epyc 7742’s is $13,900. A brace of 7502’s (32C/64T, 2.5GHz base, 3.35GHz boost, $2600) is $5200. The Intel Xeon Platinum 8260 is a $4700 CPU, but there are four of them in the highest-scoring system, for a total cost of $18,800. $13,900 worth of AMD CPUs buys you ~1.19x more performance than $18,800 worth of Intel CPUs. The comparison doesn’t get better as we drop down the stack. Four E7-8890v4’s would run nearly $30,000 at list price. A pair of Platinum 8280s is $20,000. The 8676L is a $16,600 CPU at list price.

But it’s not just price, or even price/performance where AMD has an advantage. Intel heavily subdivides its product features and charges considerably more for them. Consider, for example, the price difference between the Xeon 8276, 8276M and Xeon Platinum 8276L. These three CPUs are identical, save for the maximum amount of RAM each supports. The pricing, however, is anything but.


Oh, you need 4.5TB of RAM? That’ll be an extra $8K.

In this case, “Maximum memory” includes Intel Optane. The 4.5TB RAM capability assumes 3TB of Optane installed alongside 1.5TB of RAM. For comparison, all 7nm Rome CPUs offer support for up to 4TB of RAM. It’s a standard, baked-in feature on all CPUs, and it simplifies product purchases and future planning. AMD isn’t just offering chips at lower prices, it’s taking a bat to Intel’s entire market segmentation method. Good luck justifying an $8000 price increase for additional RAM support when AMD is willing to sell you 4TB worth of addressable capacity at base price.

One of AMD’s talking points with Epyc is how it offers the benefits of a 2S system in a 1S configuration. This chart from ServetheHome lays out the differences nicely:


Image by ServeTheHome

Part of AMD’s advantage here is that it can hit multiple Intel weaknesses simultaneously. Need lots of PCIe lanes? AMD is better. Want PCIe 4.0? AMD is better. If your workloads scale optimally with cores, no one is selling more cores per socket than AMD. Intel can still claim a few advantages — it offers much larger unified L3 caches than AMD (each individual AMD L3 cache is effectively 16MB, with a 4MB slice per core). But those advantages are going to be limited to specific applications that respond to them. Intel wants vendors to invest in building support for its Optane DC Persistent Memory, but it isn’t clear how many are doing so. The current rock-bottom prices for both NAND and DRAM have made it much harder for Optane to compete in-market.

The move to 7nm has given AMD an advantage in power consumption as well, particularly when you consider server retirements. STH reports single-threaded power consumption on a Xeon Platinum 8180 at ~430W (wall power), compared to ~340W of wall power for the AMD Epyc 7742 system. What they note, however, is that the high core count on AMD’s newest CPUs will allow them to retire between 6-8 sockets worth of 2017 Intel Xeons (60-80 cores) in order to consolidate the workloads into a single AMD Epyc system. The power savings from retiring 3-4 dual-socket servers is much larger than the ~90W difference between the two CPUs.

Features like DL Boost may give Intel a performance kick in AI and machine learning workloads, but the company is going to be fighting a decidedly uphill battle and thus far, the data we’ve seen suggests these factors can help Intel match AMD as opposed to beating it.

How Much Do Xeon’s Really Cost?

The list prices we’ve been quoting for this story are the formal prices that Intel publishes for Xeon CPUs in 1K units. They are also widely known to be inaccurate, at least as far as the major OEMs are concerned. We don’t know what Dell, HPE, and other vendors actually pay for Xeon CPUs, but we do know it’s often much less than list price, which is typically paid only by the retail channel.

The gap between Intel list prices and actual prices may explain why Threadripper hasn’t had much market penetration. Despite the fact that Threadripper CPUs have offered vastly more cores per $ and higher performance per dollar for two years now, the OEMs that share sales information, like MindFactory, report very low sales of both Threadripper and Skylake-X. Intel, however, has also shown no particular interest in slashing Core X prices. It continues to position a 10-core Core i9-9820X as appropriate competition for chips like the Threadripper 2950X, despite AMD’s superior performance in that match-up. This strongly implies that Intel is having no particular trouble selling 10-core CPUs to the OEM partners that want them, despite Threadripper’s superior price/performance ratio and that AMD’s share of the workstation market is quite limited.

While Intel has trimmed its HEDT prices (the 10-core Core i7-6950X was $1723 in 2016, compared to $900 for a Core i9-9820X today), it has never attempted to price/performance match against Threadripper. If that bulwark is going to crumble, Rome will be the CPU that does it. Ryzen and Threadripper will be viewed as more credible workstation CPUs if Epyc starts chewing into the server market.

Intel is Playing AMD’s Game Now

Intel can cut its prices to respond to AMD in the short-term. Long-term, it’s going to have to challenge AMD directly. That’s going to mean delivering more cores at lower prices, with higher amounts of memory supported per socket. Cooper Lake, which is built on 14nm and includes additional support for new AI-focused AVX-512 instructions, will arrive in the first half of next year. That chip will help Intel focus on some of the markets it wants to compete in, but it won’t change the core count differential between the two companies. Similarly, Intel may have trouble putting a $3000 – $7000 premium on support for 2TB – 4.5TB of RAM given that AMD is willing to support up to 4TB of memory on every CPU socket.

We don’t know yet if Intel will increase core counts with Ice Lake servers, or what sorts of designs it will bring to market, but ICL in servers is at least a year away. By the time ICL servers are ready to ship, AMD’s 7nm EUV designs may be ready as well. Having kicked off the mother of all refresh cycles with Rome, AMD’s challenge over the next 12 – 24 months will be demonstrating ongoing smooth update cadences and continued performance improvements. If it does, it has a genuine shot at building the kind of stable enterprise market it’s desired for decades.

Don’t Get Cocky

When AMD launched dual-core Opteron and its consumer equivalent, the Athlon 64 X2, there was a definite sense that the company had finally arrived. Just over a year later, Intel launched the Core 2 Duo. AMD spent the next 11 years wandering in the proverbial wilderness. Later, executives would admit that the company had taken its eye off the ball and become distracted with the ATI acquisition. A string of problems followed.

The simplistic assumption that the P4 Prescott was a disaster Intel couldn’t recover from proved incorrect. Historically, attacking Intel has often proven akin to hitting a rubber wall with a Sledgehammer (pun intended). Deforming the wall is comparatively easy. Destroying it altogether is a far more difficult task. AMD has perhaps the best opportunity to take market share in the enterprise that it has ever had with 7nm Epyc, but building server share is a slow and careful process, not a wind sprint. If AMD wants to keep what it’s building this time around, it needs to play its cards differently than it did in 2005 – 2006.

But with that said, I don’t use phrases like “golden age” lightly. I’m using it now. While I make no projections on how long it will last, 7nm Epyc’s debut has made it official, as far as I’m concerned: Welcome to the second golden age of AMD.

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Epic Win: AMD’s 64-core 7nm Epyc CPUs Leave Xeon Lying in the Dirt

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AMD has launched its 7nm “Rome” series of Epyc server CPUs, with up to 64 cores, 128 threads, 225W TDPs, and a maximum clock speed of up to 3.4GHz. While third-generation Ryzen has lit up the enthusiast boards and driven extremely strong channel sales in the last month, the server market is where AMD truly wants to play. The server market, in many respects, is where it’s at.

And while corporate launches are basically an invitation for a company to make aggressive claims in the friendliest environment on Earth, the specific claims that AMD is making are eye-opening. AMD claims that Epyc sets no fewer than 80 new world records for CPU performance as measured in a wide range of industry-standard benchmarks, with the Epyc 7742 delivering 97 percent higher performance than Intel’s Xeon Platinum 8280L in peak SPECint 2017. Additional performance claims are shown below:


Image by Anandtech

Some of these gains will be familiar to those who have followed AMD’s 7nm Ryzen unveils. Just as Ryzen will shortly reach up to 16 cores on desktop, Epyc will now field up to 64 cores. The addition of 256-bit AVX2 registers to the Ryzen design means that AMD CPUs now offer up to 4x the floating-point performance of Epyc 1. Intel isn’t going to have an easy time of countering this — Cascade Lake is already in-market for the year, and Cooper Lake will drop in early 2020. This is why Intel CEO Bob Swan started acknowledging that his company expects a more competitive AMD several months ago. The writing has been on the proverbial wall.

Single-threaded workloads have an average improved IPC of 1.15x at the same frequency, while 32-core / 64-thread workload uplift is even higher, at 1.23x. The maximum gain AMD saw from IPC and efficiency improvements on a 32-core CPU was up to 1.4x, though this should be considered an unusual result. As previously reported, Epyc includes 128 PCIe lanes, PCIe 4.0 support, and can load up to 8TB of DDR4-3200.

The company is trying to make a lot of hay over its 2S deployment capabilities, claiming that a 2S AMD Epyc configuration offers a 44 percent lower TCO (total cost of ownership), allows for a 45 percent reduction in total servers (thanks to higher CPU counts) and offers 83 percent more performance (thanks to a combination of higher core counts and higher performance). AMD is arguing that their single-socket configuration offers I/O and overall performance equivalent to a dual-socket Xeon. Depending on the application and scenario, they may well be right. Intel’s dual sockets top out at 56 cores, AMD can do a single-socket 64-core system.

This approach has historical merit. Back in the early 2000s, AMD’s Opteron was a strong server competitor for Xeon from the beginning, but it was particularly strong in markets that used multi-socket systems. AMD’s “glueless” server architecture allowed it to attach cores directly to each other using HyperTransport, while Intel CPUs were connected to — and severely bottlenecked by — a common, shared, front-side bus. Single-socket servers were already quite popular in the early 2000s, but while the 2S and 4S markets were smaller, they were extremely lucrative. AMD eventually took approximately 20 percent of the server market from Intel in 2005 – 2006 before its decline began, but its earliest and largest successes were in the high core-count servers where its products had the greatest advantage over Intel in terms of relative feature sets.

The situation today is not identical, but it is analogous. Again, we see AMD putting in particular effort to make certain its top-end parts are difficult or impossible for Intel to match. A 2S AMD Rome deployment packs up to 128 cores. The Cascade Lake-AP servers that Intel sells are BGA-only and by all accounts, exceptionally expensive. Unless you use Cascade Lake-AP, you’re limited to 28 cores in an Intel socket. AMD can sell you 64.

Anandtech has a detailed review of the Epyc 7nm launch hardware, and the results fully live up to the expectations. Even in AVX-512 applications intended for the HPC market, dual Epyc 7742 is capable of matching dual Intel Xeon Platinum 8280 CPUs.


Image by Anandtech.

This is literally one of the most Intel-friendly benchmark runs you could possibly arrange. With AVX-512 on an optimized Intel rig, the 7742 is merely just as fast at a fraction of the price. Without those AVX-512 optimizations, AMD is 1.43x faster. Overall, AMD is offering 50-100 percent more performance than Intel in the server market, at a 40 percent lower price tag. According Anandtech, there is simply “no contest.”

Intel can cut its prices, to be sure. Beyond that, it has limited maneuverability. Ice Lake servers will not arrive for another year. Pricing on these cores is simply amazing, with a top-end Epyc 7742 selling for just $6950, or roughly $108 per core. An Intel Xeon Platinum 8280 has a list price of over $10,000 for a 28-core chip, just to put that in perspective. If you want a 32-core part, the Epyc 7502 packs 32 cores, 64 threads, higher IPC, and an additional 300MHz of frequency (2.5GHz base, versus 2.2GHz) for $2600 as opposed to the old price of $4200 for the 7601. AMD doesn’t segment its products the way Intel does, which means you get the full benefits of buying an Epyc part in terms of PCIe lanes and additional features. AMD also supports up to 4TB of RAM per socket. Intel tops out at 2TB per socket, and slaps a price premium on that level of RAM support.

In short? Epic Epyc win. Analysts are predicting the company’s market share in servers could double by mid-2020. Dell, Lenovo, and HPE have servers in the works. Epyc 1 was a test shot and a pipecleaner. Epyc 2, like Rome, wasn’t built in a day — but once constructed, it dominated the geopolitical landscape of the ancient world for centuries. Intel had best hope its rival’s new CPU doesn’t live up to the reputation of its namesake.

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Leak Shows AMD Epyc 7742 Slugging it Out With Intel Xeon Platinum 8280

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AMD has kept details about its upcoming Epyc product family remarkably close to its chest. A recent leak (now deleted) at the publicly available Open Benchmarking database shows a tough competition between AMD’s upcoming 7nm Epyc CPUs and Intel’s equivalent Xeon products. Intel CEO Bob Swan has referred to AMD as offering increased competition in the back half of 2019, particularly in data center, so these figures aren’t automatically surprising — unless, of course, you remember the era just a few years ago when AMD’s market share in servers was basically zero.

According to the text of the now-deleted leak (picked up by THG before it went down), the AMD Epyc 7742 is a 64-core CPU with 128 threads, 256MB of L3 cache, a TDP of 225W, and a base / boost clock of 2.25GHz and 3.4GHz, respectively. The already-launched Epyc 7601 is a 32C/64T, 180W TDP CPU, with 64MB of L3 and a nearly-identical 2.2GHz base / 3.4GHz boost clock. The Xeon Platinum 8280 is 28C/56T, 2.7GHz base, 4GHz boost, and a 205W TDP, while the Xeon Gold 6138 (included for reference as well) is 20C/40T, 2GHz / 3.7GHz, and a 125W TDP.

If these rumors are accurate, AMD has managed to double core count and very slightly increase clock within a 1.25x larger TDP envelope. I am not sure what the “RDY1001C” refers to at the bottom of the results, though this configuration is always the fastest of the listed. Googling the term turned up no results.

There are more tests at THG than we’ve reproduced here; check their article for full results. And, as always, treat all results with a big ol’ bucket of caution. These are leaked results. Even if accurate, they may reflect engineering samples that are not representative of final performance.

SVT is a video encoder that’s heavily optimized for Intel CPUs, but optimizations for Intel chips often work well for AMD CPUs as well, and we certainly see that here. None of the encodes seem to scale particularly well when adding more cores, so we’re not going to try to make sense of the dualie figures. A single 7742 is significantly faster than the Xeon Platinum 8280 and the 7742 is more than twice as fast as the 7601.

In HEVC, the performance figures change. Here, Intel and AMD are at parity overall, but the 7742 is a huge uplift over and above the Epyc 7601.

POV-Ray 3.7 does scale with increased thread counts, but the gain from 1x CPU to 2x CPUs is much smaller from the 7742 as compared to the 7601. AMD only picks up about 24 percent more performance from adding another 64 cores, compared to 42 percent scaling for the Xeon Platinum 8280. This difference in scaling means that a pair of dual Xeon 8280’s nearly match a pair of Epyc 7742’s, even though one Epyc 7742 is significantly faster than one Xeon Platinum 8280.

Blender, and rendering more generally, are tests that AMD CPUs generally excel at. AMD decisively wins this test, though interestingly, we also see signs of significantly improved scaling for the Intel CPUs. This may simply reflect the fact that the Intel CPUs have far fewer cores. The Xeon Platinum 8280 is only a 28-core chip being compared to the performance of a 64-core chip. That’s a fairly massive advantage for AMD. Of course, there’s also the question of price and positioning — Intel has typically priced its Xeons far above AMD’s Epyc CPUs, and we tend to prioritize comparing on price above other factors.

Readers should, however, be aware that we may be seeing scaling issues on the AMD CPUs because of the sheer number of cores — 128C/256T, while the Xeon Platinum CPUs are only fielding 56 cores in a 2S configuration. The applications themselves may not scale well at these kinds of thread counts.

If these figures are accurate, they suggest AMD’s 7nm Epyc will be a significant challenge for Intel across a wider range of markets — which is pretty much exactly what we expected based on third-generation Ryzen and AMD’s previous statements about Epyc 2. Factor in Bob Swan’s acknowledgment of an increased competitive market, and we have a scenario teed up in which Intel will cut its Xeon prices, either by directly trimming them or when it launches Cooper Lake (currently expected in the first half of 2020). Intel’s CPU prices have historically run much higher than AMD’s, but it’s difficult to know exactly how much higher, because the company’s list prices (the best indicator we have to go on) don’t reflect what its volume customers actually pay.

If AMD’s Rome is as good as it looks, we should see increased OEM adoption of the part compared to first-generation Epyc, as well as some reaction from Intel. It can take server customers multiple product generations to move to new vendors, but they do eventually take notice.

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Intel’s Cascade Lake With DL Boost Goes Head to Head with Nvidia’s Titan RTX in AI Tests

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For the past few years, Intel has talked up its Cascade Lake servers with DL Boost (also known as VNNI, Vector Neural Net Instructions). These new capabilities are a subset of AVX-512 and are intended to specifically accelerate CPU performance in AI applications. Historically, many AI applications have favored GPUs over CPUs. The architecture of GPUs — massively parallel processors with low single-thread performance — has been a much better fit for graphics processors rather than CPUs. CPUs offer far more execution resources per thread, but even today’s multi-core CPUs are dwarfed by the parallelism available in a high-end GPU core.

Anandtech has compared the performance of Cascade Lake, the Epyc 7601 (soon to be surpassed by AMD’s 7nm Rome CPUs, but still AMD’s leading server core today), and an RTX Titan. The article, by the excellent Johan De Gelas, discusses different types of neural nets beyond the CNNs (Convolutional Neural Networks) that are typically benchmarked, and how a key part of Intel’s strategy is to compete against Nvidia in workloads where GPUs are not as strong or cannot yet serve the emerging needs of the market due to constraints on memory capacity (GPUs still can’t match CPUs here), the use of ‘light’ AI models that don’t require long training times, or AI models that depend on non-neural network statistical models.

Growing data center revenue is a critical component of Intel’s overall push into AI and machine learning. Nvidia, meanwhile, is keen to protect a market that it currently competes in virtually alone. Intel’s AI strategy is broad and encompasses multiple products, from Movidius and Nervana to DL Boost on Xeon, to the upcoming Xe line of GPUs. Nvidia is seeking to show that GPUs can be used to handle AI calculations in a broader range of workloads. Intel is building new AI capabilities into existing products, fielding new hardware that it hopes will impact the market, and trying to build its first serious GPU to challenge the work AMD and Nvidia do across the consumer space.

What Anandtech’s benchmarks show, in aggregate, is that the gulf between Intel and Nvidia remains wide — even with DL Boost. This graph of a Recurrent Neural Network test used a “Long Short-Term Memory (LSTM) network as neural network. A type of RNN, LSTM selectively “remembers” patterns over a certain duration of time.” Anandtech also used three different configurations to test it — out-of-the-box Tensorflow with conda, an Intel-optimized Tensorflow with PyPi, and a version of Tensorflow optimized from-source using Bazel, using the very latest version of Tensorflow.

Image by Anandtech


Image by Anandtech


This pair of images captures relative scaling between the CPUs as well as the comparison against the RTX Titan. Out of the box performance was quite poor on AMD, though it improved with the optimized code. Intel’s performance shot up like a rocket when the source-optimized version was tested, but even the source-optimized version didn’t match Titan RTX performance very well. De Gelas notes: “Secondly, we were quite amazed that our Titan RTX was less than 3 times faster than our dual Xeon setup,” which tells you something about how these comparisons run within the larger article.

DL Boost isn’t enough to close the gap between Intel and Nvidia, but in fairness, it probably was never supposed to be. Intel’s goal here is to improve AI performance enough on Xeon to make running these workloads plausible on servers that will be mostly used for other things, or when building AI models that don’t fit within the constraints of a modern GPU. The company’s longer-term goal is to compete in the AI market with a range of equipment, not just Xeons. With Xe not quite ready yet, competing in the HPC space right now means competing with Xeon.

For those of you wondering about AMD, AMD isn’t really talking about running AI workloads on Epyc CPUs, but has focused on its RocM initiative for running CUDA code on OpenCL. AMD does not talk about this side of its business very much, but Nvidia dominates the market for AI and HPC GPU applications. Both AMD and Intel want a piece of the space. Right now, both appear to be fighting uphill to claim one.

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