For anyone following the server processor market in the last years there should be one thing clear as day: “it’s about to go down”. Competition between arch-rivals AMD and Intel is back on, while designer ARM is closing deals and opening up new spaces. Let’s take a closer look at what is in store.
Will Intel keep their crown?
Possibly the biggest news of the last months is the real-world performance of AMD’s new Ryzen CPUs. Recently launched in the client space, Ryzen chips offer approximately double the number of cores of their Intel counterparts, within roughly the same TDP and also on a 14nm process. AMD’s chips also feature pretty big caches for what we’re used to seeing in this segment. Such features are probably of less interest to the current target of AMD’s marketing efforts – the hardcore gamers – but could make many data center managers very happy. Higher core count means higher integration, more performance per system, lower TCO. Ryzen chips also feature the goodies that Intel got us used to – AVX, Turbo mode and hardware threading (also called SMT or Hyper-Threading on Intel x86). How do we know Intel is feeling threatened? Money. They’ve significantly dropped the prices of their desktop processors, in some cases by as much as 25%. If (or “once”) Ryzen threatens Intel’s Xeon cash-cow, we can be sure that Intel will defend it very vigorously and will aggressively work to deliver performing 10nm parts in 2018.
AMD indeed has a 32-core part in the pipeline, codenamed “Naples”, with strong support for DDR4. New dual-socket systems based on this chip are said to support up to 2 TB of memory, 512 GB in practice vs. the 384 GB most Intel platforms offer today. We should keep in mind that AMD has a history of undercutting Intel’s high performance enterprise offerings – for instance, by offering 4-socket platforms at attractive price points, making Intel customers ditch two 2-socket servers in favor of one.
ARM creeping in
Another interesting development is the interest from Microsoft to use ARM chips for production in its cloud business. At the Open Compute Project Summit, Microsoft declared that ARM would be the base of a future server design plugging into the Project Olympus form factor. Such work triggers the signing of new partnerships around the idea, as well as the development of a bunch of related components.
Microsoft has already had some stake in ARM development – for instance, with past versions of Windows. Now, it looks like the majority of Windows server-focused functionality will have to run smoothly on ARM, which is a big deal – especially for a company making one of the most used operating systems in the world.
We all know that Intel’s round of layoffs and accelerated retirements leaked a solid number of talented engineers and executives into the marketplace. Interestingly, it seems that Intel might be facing some competition from the very people who used to fuel the company. The Bloomberg article on the matter quotes both Anand Chandrasekher, now in charge of Qualcomm’s server chips, as well as Kushagra Vaid, now responsible for Azure hardware infrastructure at Microsoft.