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Intel's 28-core HEDT Processor a Panic Reaction to 32-core Threadripper


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At Computex 2018, we witnessed two major HEDT (high-end desktop) processor announcements. Intel unveiled a client-segment implementation of its "Skylake XCC" (extreme core count) silicon, which requires a new motherboard, while AMD announced a doubling in core-counts of its Ryzen Threadripper family, with the introduction of new 24-core and 32-core models, which are multi-chip modules of its new 12 nm "Zen+" die, and compatible with existing X399 chipset motherboards. With frantic increases in core counts, the practicality of these chips to even the most hardcore enthusiast or productivity professional diminishes. The Computex 2018 demos reek of a pissing-contest between the x86 processor giants, with AMD having an upper hand.

The HEDT segment is intended to occupy the space between client desktops and serious scalar workstations. Intel is frantically putting together a new HEDT platform positioned above its current LGA2066 (X299) platform, built around its Purley enterprise platform, and a variant of the LGA3647 socket (this chip + your X299 motherboard is no bueno). This socket is needed to wire out the 28-core Skylake XCC (extreme core count) silicon, which has a six-channel DDR4 memory interface. The company put up a live demo at the teaser of this unnamed processor, where it was running at 5.00 GHz, which led many to believe that the processor runs at that speed out of the box, at least at its maximum Turbo Boost state, if not nominal clock. Intel admitted to "Tom's Hardware," that it "forgot" to mention to the crowds that the chip was overclocked.

Overclocking the 28-core chip was no small effort. It took an extreme cooling method, specifically a refrigerated heat-exchanger, coupled with a custom motherboard (we suspect GIGABYTE-sourced), to keep the processor bench-stable at 5.00 GHz. Intel's defense to Tom's Hardware was that "in the excitement of the moment," its on-stage presenter "forgot" to use the word "overclocked." Gregory Bryant, SVP client-computing at Intel not only omitted "overclocked" from his presentation, but made sure to stress on "5 GHz," as if it were part of the chip's specifications.

"What's amazing is that trade-off, this actually being a 5 GHz in single-threaded performance frequency and not...having to sacrifice that for this kind of multi-threaded performance, so you've got kind of the best of both worlds. So, you guys want to see us productize that thing? Tell you what, we'll bring that product to market in Q4 this year, and you'll be able to get it," he said.

Rival AMD, meanwhile, showed off its 24-core and 32-core Ryzen Threadripper II processors, with its 24-core part beating Intel's i9-7980XE 18-core chip under ordinary air cooling.

Intel used a multiplier-unlocked derivative of the Xeon Platinum 8180 "Skylake-SP" processor in this demo. The Xeon Platinum 8180 "Skylake-SP" is a $10,000 processor with a 205W rated TDP at its nominal clock speed of 2.50 GHz, with a Turbo Boost frequency of 3.80 GHz. The company achieved a 100% overclock to 5.00 GHz, using extreme cooling, and considering that TDP is calculated taking into account a processor's nominal clock (a clock speed that all cores are guaranteed to run at simultaneously), the company could have easily crossed 350W to 400W TDP stabilizing the 5.00 GHz overclock. If a 205W TDP figures in the same sentence as 2.50 GHz nominal clocks, it doesn't bode well for the final product. It will either have a very high TDP (higher still taking into account its unlocked multiplier), or clock speeds that aren't much higher than the Xeon Platinum 8180.

Consider the AMD EPYC 7601 for a moment, which is the fastest 32-core 1P EPYC SKU. It ticks at 2.20 GHz, with a boost frequency of 3.20 GHz, but has its TDP rated lower, at 180W. Now consider the fact that AMD is building the 32-core Threadripper II with more advanced 12 nm "Zen+" dies, and it becomes clear that the 24-core and 32-core Threadrippers are the stuff of nightmares for Gregory Bryant, not because AMD will make more money out of them than Intel makes out of its 28-core G-man in a football jersey, but because AMD's offering could be cheaper and more efficient, besides being fast. An overall superior halo product almost always has a spillover PR to cheaper client-segment products across platforms; and the client GPU industry has demonstrated that for the past two decades.

AMD is already selling 16 cores at $999, and beating Intel's $999 10-core i9-7900X in a variety of HEDT-relevant tasks. The company has already demonstrated that its 24-core Threadripper II is faster than Intel's $1,999 18-core i9-7980XE. It would surprise us if AMD prices this 24-core part double that of its 16-core part, and so it's more likely to end up cheaper than the i9-7980XE.

Intel cannot beat the 32-core Threadripper II on the X299/LGA2066 platform, because it has maxed out the number of cores the platform can pull. The Skylake HCC (high core count) silicon, deployed on 12-core, 14-core, 16-core, and 18-core LGA2066 processors, is already motherboard designers' nightmare, many of whom have launched special "XE" variants of their top motherboard models that offer acceptable overclocking headroom on these chips, thanks to beefed up VRM.

Coming up with a newer platform, namely revising the Purley 1P enterprise platform for the client-segment, with its large LGA3647 socket and 6-channel memory interface, is the only direction in which Intel could have gone to take on the new wave of Threadrippers. AMD, on the other hand, has confirmed that its 24-core and 32-core Threadripper II chips are compatible with current socket TR4 motherboards based on the AMD X399 chipset. It's possible that the next wave of TR4 motherboards could have 8-channel memory interface, wider than that of Intel's Skylake XCC silicon, and both forwards and backwards compatibility with current-generation Threadripper SKUs (at half the memory bus width) and future Threadripper chips.

PC enthusiasts nurse an expensive hobby, but the commercial success of NVIDIA TITAN V graphics card (or lack thereof) shows that there are limits to how many enthusiasts have $3,000 to spend on a single component.

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