Market Impact 2023: Intel Sapphire Rapids vs. AMD EPYC 9004 Genoa
It is probably going to be the hottest topic for the next few quarters. Let us cut the marketing speak and get to where we are in the market:
If you want the maximum performance per socket, the AMD EPYC 9654 is still the king, but now with an asterisk. Intel has a number of accelerators. Those can range from features like AMX for AI inference on core to dedicated accelerators like QAT, IAA, DLB, and DSA. If those accelerators are used, Intel can make a run at maximum performance while using fewer cores.
The dark horse in the performance hunt is really the Intel Xeon Max line. Intel has been primarily marketing these chips to the HPC space. Part of that is that many need to make their way to the Aurora supercomputer, while they will likely be back from manufacturing ready to ship by the end of February/ early March. The Intel Xeon Max line’s ability to either boot with its HBM as a distinct tier, as the only tier of memory or in caching mode should intrigue many. HBM2e in caching mode will increase memory bandwidth considerably. The Intel Xeon Max 9462 at 32 cores and with higher-clock speeds may be a very valid Xeon Platinum 8462Y+ competitor in many workloads at a ~$2,000 premium. A wise IT organization would take a look at Xeon Max since it offers a new performance vector.
Still, after months with the parts and having written now a ~10,000-word essay on the new parts, it feels like the maximum impact of Sapphire Rapids was missed. Intel’s story is one extolling the virtues of acceleration, yet 56% of its SKUs do not have QuickAssist, one of its most useful accelerators, since most servers these days do crypto and compression tasks. Also, Intel has not shown its accelerator roadmap. All of these accelerators are here today, but will they be in Granite Rapids, Emerald Rapids, Sierra Forest, or other future processors? If not, as a developer, why would one develop for a QuickAssist target rather than a DPU accelerator for crypto and compression offload? That is a tough question made tougher by Intel holding back accelerators to push an Intel On Demand agenda.
The Intel On Demand part is one that was compared to BMW’s charging subscriptions for seat heaters as a service. I understand Intel’s desire to move to an as-a-service model. At the same time, let us get real for a moment, getting PCIe accelerators for functions like QuickAssist is not that much more expensive. We have been paying a $200-300 premium for DPUs over high-speed NICs. How much is Lenovo going to charge for a QAT accelerator or two? If I purchase a server with four Intel Xeon Platinum 8460H’s at over $10,000 list price each, how much can an OEM like Lenovo going to charge for two QAT accelerators that are a portion of the functionality we get from a $300 NIC to DPU premium?
An inescapable feeling with Sapphire Rapids is that they would be extremely compelling with accelerators turned on and more than half of this generation’s servers having immediate access to the acceleration. With the hodgepodge of acceleration capabilities, even on high-dollar parts, it feels strange that Intel decided to hold back its top competitive advantage over AMD from more than half of its lineup.
Let us get a little more personal here. We saw Intel’s vision using an old copy of STH’s web hosting stack updated with QAT. That change flipped the per-core performance script even with a massive cache and clock speed deficit.
Intel will sell a large number of the new 4th Gen Xeon series parts. For existing Intel customers that want to stay with Intel, it is an easy upgrade path. Those buying 16 cores in 2017-2020 now have a SKU stack designed for 2:1 or more consolidation with an emphasis on 32 core parts in this generation. Likewise, the Platinum 8180 and 8280 28-core top bin parts now have 56 and 60-core options to achieve a 2:1. We even saw the impact of moving from 4-socket Platinum 8280 and 8380H systems to 2-socked Platinum 8480.
Still, it feels like enabling some acceleration across the stack (or even just the majority of the stack) would have gone a long way in bolstering the competitive story.
For many organizations, the new processors are going to be game-changing. Make no mistake; this is the biggest upgrade to Xeon in over a decade. Not only do we get 50% more cores than a generation ago, but we have a jump in PCIe lanes, PCIe Gen5, CXL 1.1, DDR5, and a host of onboard acceleration capabilities.
Intel knows what AMD launched with Genoa. Some of the list pricing of Sapphire Rapids looks almost like it was designed to discount. The market will sort that out. While Intel does not have a direct socket-to-socket top-bin competitor to AMD, what it does have is a range of products under 200W TDP, almost as many 32-core SKUs as AMD has in its entire EPYC 9004 SKU stack, and scale. These lower power and core count SKUs move volume, ensuring that Intel has volume for its Sapphire Rapids parts and for its server OEMs.
Many will see the launch today and be shocked by a $17,000 Platinum 8490H. Realistically those are CPUs designed for massive scale-up systems where the TCO is measured in hundreds of thousands of dollars per system and list pricing is often discounted heavily at a system level.
Intel has two very different performance stories, one with accelerators and one without. It can be competitive in many segments without them, but with them, Intel has the ability to get outsized performance per core gains.
Still, Sapphire Rapids has matched AMD’s 50% generational core count improvement for 2023 servers. There is still a lot of 2023 left, and more CPUs will be launched. Perhaps the best part of the Sapphire Rapids launch is that we are seeing the direct impacts of competition in the market. That is perhaps the most important factor for server buyers with this launch.