Give Intel (INTC) this: While its manufacturing technology setbacks have made things a lot tougher for its PC and server CPU businesses than they otherwise would be, the company is willing to make some tough decisions to curtail the damage done.
The 18 server CPU launches carried out by Intel on Monday drive this home. While the chips rely on Intel’s now-fairly-old 14-nanometer (14nm) manufacturing process node and Skylake CPU core microarchitecture, they often deliver a lot more bang for the buck than comparable server CPUs launched in the spring of 2019.
Like their predecessors, the new server CPUs are based on a platform codenamed Cascade Lake and declared to be part of Intel’s second-gen Xeon Scalable server CPU line. However, the CPUs often cost more than 20% less than comparable 2019 products on a per-core basis, while also providing more cache memory and somewhat higher base and boost clock speeds.
Unlike many of their predecessors, the new CPUs can’t be used within servers featuring four or more CPU sockets. However, single and dual-socket servers now account for the lion’s share of server shipments, including shipments to heavy-spending cloud giants (the proverbial hyperscalers).
The two most powerful CPUs that Intel is launching — the Xeon Gold 6258R and 6248R — are more than 50% cheaper than their predecessors on a per-core basis. Intel claims that on the whole, its latest Xeon Gold CPUs “deliver an average of 36% more performance and an average of 42% more performance per dollar” relative to its first-gen Xeon Gold CPUs, which launched in mid-2017.
Intel also launched a few other products on Monday. The most notable of these is the Atom P5900 (codenamed Snow Ridge), a system-on-chip (SoC) for 5G base stations that was first discussed in early 2019 and relies on Intel’s newer 10nm process node. Intel says that it already has P5900 design wins with Nokia, Ericsson and ZTE, and that it’s aiming for a 40% base station share by 2021. The chip will square off against base station processors from the likes of Marvell Technology (MRVL) and NXP Semiconductors (NXPI) .
The newest Xeon CPUs, meanwhile, aim to keep AMD (AMD) from gaining too much share via its second-gen Epyc server CPU line (codenamed Rome), which relies on a 7nm Taiwan Semiconductor (TSM) process node that’s competitive with Intel’s 10nm node. Rome scales up to 64 cores — Cascade Lake tops out at 28, excluding expensive CPUs housing multiple chips in the same package — and has been pretty well-received since launching in mid-2019, with reviewers often finding Rome CPUs to deliver much more performance per dollar than comparable 2019 Cascade Lake CPUs.
Hyperscalers and supercomputer buyers have been particularly quick to adopt Rome. AMD has said it expects to have a double-digit server CPU share by mid-2020, up from a mid-single digit share at the end of 2018, and is aiming for a 20%-plus share long-term.
Much like the fall 2019 launch of its aggressively-priced, Cascade Lake-X, high-end desktop CPUs, Intel’s latest Cascade Lake server CPU launches make it clear that the chip giant is willing to sacrifice its margins to hold onto share in the face of tough competition from AMD. Particularly since Intel is still planning to launch a new 14nm server CPU platform (codenamed Cooper Lake) at some point in the first half of 2020.
In addition, though it isn’t clear how large 2020 volumes will be, Intel also plans to start shipping its first 10nm server CPUs (based on a platform codenamed Ice Lake) before year’s end. AMD, for its part, is expected to launch its third-gen Epyc CPU line (codenamed Milan) at some point during the second half of 2020, as well as a fourth-gen Ryzen desktop CPU line.
With AMD now having competitive 7nm offerings across its desktop, notebook and server CPU lineup and also expected to unveil desktop and server refreshes later this year, Intel cautioned in January that it expects “an increasingly competitive environment as we move through the year.”
Intel’s latest server CPU launches show that it has no illusions about what kinds of pricing actions are needed (in some market segments, at least) to keep things from getting out of hand.
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