In the latest chapter of the AMD-Intel battle for global chip dominance, both companies are targeting the server market with their 3rd generation x86 CPUs. Earlier this year AMD released its EPYC “Milan” chips and Intel countered with its Xeon Scalable Processor (SP), codenamed “Ice Lake.”
Server Processors: x86
While AMD and Intel manufacture and sell a suite of chips for computer systems, EPYC and Xeon processors specifically serve workstations, servers, and embedded systems. These processors are similar to their desktop counterparts using the x86 microarchitecture. Unlike desktop chips, server processors include enterprise features like PCIe lanes, greater RAM and cache memory, and higher core counts.
Also Read: Top Rack Servers of 2021
AMD EPYC Family
Still relatively new to the x86 market, AMD used its Zen microarchitecture to craft and launch its EPYC line of processors in 2017. The 1st Generation AMD EPYC (Naples) included up to 32 cores, 64MB in L3 caching, 128 PCIe lanes, and eight channels for DDR4. In 2018, the second iteration (Rome) release of AMD EPYC boosted RAM to 4TB and supported PCIe 4.0 and up to 64 cores. The release of Rome was a game-changer as it outperformed Intel in several specs.
Also Read: AMD Pushes Ahead With Server Performance
Announced in October 2019, the 3rd Generation EPYC – codenamed Milan – was launched in March 2021 and is AMD’s current standard for server processors. The announcement details for the 4th-gen Genoa chips is expected in 2022.
Intel Xeon Scalable Processor Family
The Xeon line of microprocessors has been Intel’s x86 microprocessors since 1998. Through years of developing consumer and commercial-facing chips, Intel launched its 1st Generation Xeon Scalable Processor, based on the Skylake microarchitecture, in 2015. Intel beat AMD to market in offering the newest processors for servers, and each iteration comes in four levels of capabilities:
- Xeon Bronze
- Xeon Silver
- Xeon Gold
- Xeon Platinum
From Bronze to Platinum, the difference in features is entry-level performance and light task completion against mission-critical, virtualization, real-time analytics, and artificial intelligence features.
Also Read: Intel Speeds Up Xeon’ Prestonia’ Processor
The 3rd Generation Xeon Scalable Processor, dubbed Ice Lake, launched in September 2019, and the chip was made available in April 2021. The next iteration, Tiger Lake, was announced in October 2020 and could be available as soon as this year.
|2019||Cascade Lake||2nd||56||Palm Cove|
|2021||Ice Lake||3rd||40||Sunny Cove|
|TBA||Tiger Lake||4th||TBA||Willow Cove|
Also Read: Virtually Speaking: The Arrival of Quad-Core
Comparing 3rd Generation Chips: Milan vs. Ice Lake
3rd Generation AMD EPYC: Milan
The 3rd Gen AMD EPYC comes on the heels of the industry-respected Rome model and Zen+ (also known as Zen 2) microarchitecture. In November 2020, testing for Zen 3 showed world-record per-core performance, only upping expectations for this latest release.
Similar to Rome, Milan is 7nm with 64 cores and 128 threads, holds up to 4TB in memory capacity and offers 128 PCIe lanes. Milan breaks from Rome in its updated microarchitecture enabling chiplet connectivity and leading to more L3 cache and reduced latency. In all, the AMD EPYC Milan set 120 new world records across workloads for HPC, virtualization, cloud, and enterprise workloads.
Improvements from the previous generation include:
- Performance improvement: 19%
- Peak power increase: 17%
Also Read: Dell Begins AMD Server Push
3rd Generation Intel Xeon Scalable Processor: Ice Lake
Starting with the release of Cooper Lake in 2019, Intel leaped from 14nm in releasing its first 10nm chip. After an extended delay, Intel launched its second 10nm in the form of its 3rd Generation Xeon Scalable Processor, Ice Lake. Intel’s struggles to meet 7nm are well-documented, but that might change soon. Earlier this month, IBM announced the world’s first 2nm transistor, offering encouraging news to its partner, Intel.
While Intel is still chasing AMD Rome’s success, industry analysts believe Ice Lake is one of the most significant improvements from Intel in a decade. Looking beyond the current pipeline, some analysts forecast Intel could jump to offering 2nm by 2024.
Also Read: Intel’s Xeon Headed for Bigger 64-Bit Stage
Notable changes from Cascade Lake include a 20% IPC bump and improved handling of advanced workloads like cloud, virtualization, and AI. Additional features like Intel Crypto Acceleration ease encryption-intensive workloads like 5G infrastructure and SSL web serving. Intel’s 3rd Gen Xeon-SP shines brightest against Milan with its memory capacity at 6TB and almost double the number of chip variations.
Improvements from the previous generation include:
- Higher memory capacity: 166%
- AI performance: 74%
- Higher memory bandwidth: 60%
- Performance improvement: 46%
- More PCIe lanes: 33%
Milan vs. Ice Lake Specs Comparison
|AMD EPYC||Intel Xeon|
|Core form factor||7nm||10nm|
|Base frequency (GHz)||2.0 – 3.7||2.0 – 3.6|
|Max frequency (GHz)||3.45 – 4.1||2.6 – 3.6|
|TDP||155W – 280W||105W – 270W|
|L2 cache||512KB||10MB – 50MB|
|L3 cache||64MB – 256MB||12MB – 60MB|
|PCIe lanes (Gen 4)||128||128|
|Price Range||$913 – $7,890||$501 – $8,099|
Company Profiles: AMD & Intel
|Headquarters||Santa Clara, CA||Santa Clara, CA|
|x86 Market Share (Q4 2020)||7.1%||92.9%|
AMD: Little Brother Rising
For over a decade after its founding, Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) was primarily a second-source producer of computer chips for other PC manufacturers. Partnering with – you guessed it – Intel in the 1980s, AMD could learn on the job while producing the microprocessors used for IBM’s world-popular PCs.
AMD would separate from Intel in the early 1990s to release their microprocessor, followed by successfully producing the first 1-GHz chip in 2000. Antitrust battles with Intel aside, AMD has significantly enhanced its position in the microprocessor arena and gained ground against Intel.
In addition to semiconductors, AMD produces flash memory chips, graphics processors, motherboard chips, and more in the consumer electronics space.
Also Read: AMD Details Data Center Server Silicon Innovation at Next Horizon
Intel: Industry Giant Started Big
Intel was an early innovator in silicon integrated circuit solutions with two experienced technologists and $2.5 million in funding in 1968. Starting in 1981, IBM’s selection of Intel as its CPU manufacturer solidified Intel’s presence. Intel’s release of a 32-bit chip in 1985 and the Pentium microprocessor in 1993, and the combination of Intel CPUs with Microsoft operating systems made Intel a household name.
While Intel is still best known for its processors, success and the turn of the century brought an expansion of product offerings. Today, Intel offers end-user form factors, memory chips, 2-in-1 devices, virtualized server software, and more.
Also Read: Intel, EMC Partner on Cloud Storage
The Battle of the Chip Giants Continues
AMD and Intel will continue to lead the server microprocessor industry for years to come. With plans for 4th generation models in the next year, it won’t be long before each vendor has another opportunity to show off their specs.
In comparing fourth-quarter results for 2019 and 2020, the shift is noteworthy. Intel moved from 95.5% a year earlier to 92.9%–dropping 260 basis points–while AMD rose from 4.5% to 7.1%. With Q1 2021 results available, AMD’s x86 processors just scored their most significant market share since 2006.
With Rome’s success, our analysis of both product lines, and taking industry reviews into account, we believe AMD wins this round. Of course, with the size and influence of Intel and their leap in processor offerings with Ice Lake, it’ll be many years before this battle is over, if ever.
As Mercury Research’s Dean McCarron told CRN, “This is an Indy 500 race, where both cars are going over 200 miles an hour, and one’s going a little faster.”