Intel and AMD both dive into many-core CPU race

on June 7, 2018
Reading Time: 4 minutes

It seems not long ago that 2- and 4-core processors were at a seemingly unmovable status in the consumer CPU market. Both Intel and AMD had become satisfied with four cores being the pinnacle of our computing environments, at least when it came to mainstream PCs. And in the notebook space, that line was weighted lower, with the majority of thin and light machines shipping from OEMs with dual-core configurations, leaving only the flagship gaming devices with H-series quad-core options.

Intel first launched 6-core processors in its HEDT (high end desktop) line back in 2010, when it came up with the idea to migrate its Xeon workstation product to a high-end, high-margin enthusiast market. But core count increases were slow to be adopted, both due to software limitations and because the competition from AMD was minimal, at best.

But when AMD launched Ryzen last year, it started a war that continues to this day. By releasing an 8-core, 16-thread processor at mainstream prices, well under where Intel had placed its HEDT line, AMD was able to accomplish something that we had predicted would start years earlier: a core count race.

Obviously AMD didn’t create an 8-core and price it aggressively against Intel’s options out of the goodness of its heart. AMD knew that it would fall behind the Intel CPU lineup when it came to many single threaded, single core tasks like gaming and productivity. To differentiate and to be able to claim performance benefits in other, more content creation heavy tasks, AMD was willing to spend additional silicon. It provided an 8-core design priced against Intel’s 4-core CPUs.

The response from Intel was slower than many would have liked, but respond it did. It launched 6-core mainstream Coffee Lake processors that closed the gap but required new motherboards and appeared to put Intel out of its expected cadence of release schedules.

Then AMD brought out Threadripper, a competitor that it had never had previously to go against the Intel X-series platforms. It doubled core count to 16 with 32-threads available! As a result, Intel moved forward its schedule for Sky Lake-X and released parts up to 18-cores, though at very high prices by comparison.

Internally, Intel executives were livid that AMD had beat them to the punch and had been able to quickly release a 16-core offering to steal mindshare in a market that it had created and lead throughout its existence.

And thus, the current many-core CPU races began.

At Computex this week, both Intel and AMD are beating this drum. The many-core race is showing all its glory, and all of its problems.

Intel’s press conference was first and it had heard rumblings that AMD might be planning a reveal of its 2nd generation Threadripper processors with higher core counts. So it devised an impressive demonstration of a 28-core processor running at an unheard of 5 GHz on all cores – it’s hard to understate how impressive that amount of performance is. It produced a benchmark score in a common rendering test that was 2.2x faster than anything we had seen previously in a single socket, stock configuration.

This demo used a previously unutilized socket on a consumer platform, LGA3647, built for the current generation of Xeon Scalable processor. This chip also is a single, monolithic die, which does present some architectural benefits over AMD multi-chip designs if you can get past the manufacturing difficulties.

However, there has been a lot of fallout from this demo. Rather than anything resembling a standard consumer cooling configuration, Intel used a water chiller running at 1 HP (horsepower), utilizing A/C refrigerant and insulated tubing to get the CPU down to 4 degrees Celsius. This was nothing like a consumer product demo, and was more of a technology and capability demo. We will not see a product at these performance levels available to buy this year, and that knowledge has put some media, initially impressed by the demo, in a foul mood.

The AMD press conference was quite different. AMD SVP Jim Anderson showed a 32-core Threadripper processor using the same socket as the previous generation solutions. AMD is doubling the core count for its high-end consumer product line again in just a single year. This brings Threadripper up to the same core and thread count as its EPYC server CPU family.

AMD’s demo didn’t focus on specific performance numbers though it did compare a 24-core version of Threadripper to an 18-core version of Intel’s currently shipping HEDT family. AMD went out of its way to mention that both the 24-core and 32-core demos were running on air-cooled systems, not requiring any exotic cooling solutions.

It is likely AMD was planning to show specific benchmark numbers at its event, but because Intel had gone the “insane” route and put forward some unfathomably impressive scores, AMD decided to back off. Even though media and analysts that pay attention to the circumstances around these demos would understand the inaccuracy of comparison, it would have happened, and AMD would have lost.

As it stands, AMD was showing us what we will have access to later in Q3 of 2018 while Intel was showing us something we may never get to utilize.

The takeaway from both events and product demos is that the many-core future is here, even if the competitors took very different approaches to showcase it.

There are legitimate questions to the usefulness of this many-core race, as the software that can utilize this many threads on a PC is expanding slowly, but creating powerful hardware that offers flexibility to the developer is always a positive move. We can’t build the future if we don’t have the hardware to do it.