New Threadripper Puts AMD in Driver Seat for Workstations

on August 16, 2018
Reading Time: 3 minutes

AMD started off a race of CPU core count when it released the first-generation Ryzen processor back in 2017, pushing out a product with 8 cores and 16 threads, doubling that of the equivalent platform from Intel. It followed that same year with Ryzen Threadripper, an aggressive name for an aggressive product for the high-end enthusiast market and the growing pro-sumer space that combines users looking to do both work and play on personal machines. Threadripper went up to 16 cores and 32 threads, going well above the 10-core designs that Intel offered in the same market space.

AMD was able to do this quickly and cost effectively by double dipping on the development cost of the EPYC server processor. It shared the same socket and processor package design with only a handful of modest modifications to make it usable by end-users and partners. It was putting the pressure on Intel once again, this time in a market that Intel was previously the dominant leader in AND that it had created to begin with. Thus continued the “year of AMD.”

Intel did respond, offering a revision to the Core X-series of processors that reached up to 18 cores and 36 threads, one-upping the AMD hardware in core count and performance. But it did so at a much higher cost; it seemed that Intel was not willing to under cut its own Xeon workstation line in order to return the pressure on AMD. But the battle had started: the war of processor performance and core count had begun.

This month, just a year after the release of the first Threadripper processor, AMD is launching the 2nd generation Threadripper. It utilizes the updated 12nm “Zen+” core design with better clock scaling capability, improved thermal and boost technologies, and lower memory latencies. This is the same core found in the Ryzen 2000-series of processors, but with two or four dies at work rather than a single.

But this time, AMD has divided Threadripper into two sub-categories, the X-series and the WX-series. The X-series peaks with the 2950X and targets the same users and workloads as the first-generation platform including enthusiasts, pro-sumer grade content creators, and even gamers. The core counts reach 16, again the same as the previous generation, but the addition of the “Zen+” design makes this noticeably faster in nearly every facet, with a lower starting price point.

The WX line is more unique. It is going directly after workstation users, as the “W” would imply, with as many as 32 cores and 64 threads on a single processor. Applications that can really utilize that much parallel horsepower are limited to extremely high-end content creation tools, CAD design, CPU-based rendering, and heavy multi-tasking. The WX-series is basically an EPYC processor with half the memory channels and consumer-class motherboards.

Performance on the 2990WX flagship part is getting a lot of attention; mostly positive but with some questions. It obviously cuts through any multi-threaded applications that properly utilize and propagate workloads but it also does well in single threaded tasks thanks to AMD’s Precision Boost 2 capability. There are some instances where applications, even those that had traditionally been known as multi-threaded tests, demonstrate performance hits.

In software where threads may bounce around from core to core, and from NUMA node to NUMA node, results are sometimes lower on the 2990WX than the 2950X even though the WX model has twice the available processing cores. Gaming is one such example – it isn’t heavy enough on the processor to saturate the cores and thus threads move between the four die and two memory controllers occasionally causing a perf hit. AMD has a software-enabled “game mode” for the 2990WX (and the 2950X) to disable one-half or three-quarters of the cores on the part, which alleviates the performance penalty, but adds an extra step of hassle to the process.

Despite the imperfection, the second-generation Threadripper processor has put Intel in a real bind.

If Intel executives were angry last year when the first Threadripper parts were released, taking away the performance crown from Intel even if for a modest amount of time, they are going to be exceptionally mad this time around. AMD now offers content creators and OEMs a 32-core processor in a platform that Intel only provides an 18-core solution and in applications where the horsepower is utilized AMD has a 60%+ performance advantage.

Intel is probably planning a release of its Xeon Scalable-class parts for this same market with a peak 28-core solution to address Threadripper, but this means another expensive branding exercise, new motherboards, a new socket, and more hassle. Intel demonstrated a 28-core processor on stage at Computex but received tremendous blowback for running in an overclocked state and apparently forgoing that information during the showcase.

While there might be a legitimate argument to be made about the usefulness of this many processor cores for a wide range of consumers, there is no doubt that AMD is pushing the market and the technology landscape forward with both this and the previous generation Threadripper launches. Intel is being forced to respond, sometimes quickly and without a lot of tact, but in the end, it means more options and more performance at a lower price than was previously available in the high-end computing space.

It’s good to have competition back once again.