AMD Thrives in Servers amid Intel Restructuring, Layoffs

By Agam Shah

November 12, 2022

Chipmakers regularly indulge in a game of brinkmanship, with an example being Intel and AMD trying to upstage one another with server chip launches this week.

But each of those companies are in different positions, with AMD playing its traditional role of a scrappy underdog trying to unseat the behemoth Intel, which is laying off thousands as part of its multi-year restructuring plan.

The upbeat mood of AMD’s CEO Lisa Su during the launch of fourth-gen Epyc server chip on Thursday was in sharp contrast to the somber tones of Intel’s CEO Pat Gelsinger during an earnings call last month, where he acknowledged struggles and failure to meet commitments on the delivery of server chips.

Su described AMD’s fourth-gen Epyc chip as the highest performance and most efficient server chip. “We are delivering significantly more performance-per-watt than our competition,” she said.

Lisa Su holds up Genoa chip (Nov. 10, 2022)

The server chip, made using TSMC’s 5nm process, has 96 CPU cores, supports DDR5 memory, and has security features to prevent on-chip data theft. It also supports the PCIe 5.0 and CXL 1.1 interconnects.

Su reminded the audience of how far AMD had come from 2017, when the company launched its first Epyc chip. Before that, AMD was floundering in servers and pondered putting x86 server chips on the backburner in favor of Arm-based server processors. AMD ultimately scrapped the plan and turned around its fortunes with Epyc chips, which is based on the Zen architecture.

Dismantling Intel’s Dominance

AMD broke into the server market with Zen, and its market share in x86 server chips has now gone up for 14 consecutive quarters, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research.

Intel’s x86 server market share in the third quarter this year was 82.5%, down from 89.8% in the same quarter of 2021. AMD’s x86 server market share was 17.5% in the third quarter of this year, increasing from 10.2% in the third quarter.

AMD has contributed to Intel’s server decline. Intel’s server chip shipments were also due to a weak market and delays in the shipments of its latest server chips called Sapphire Rapids.

“AMD has spent years working on increasing its presence and maintaining a positive reputation. Intel had a minor glitch with the Sapphire Rapids delivery, but delivered on Ice Lake,” McCarron said.

AMD’s market share growth is not indicative of how weak the server market is, with both companies dealing with excess inventory. Demand for server chips will pick up next year, and both companies will benefit, McCarron said.

Genoa will be a part of the server upgrade cycle in 2023 as cloud providers set up new datacenters to replace aging infrastructure. Fresh datacenters are regularly established to incorporate new chips, networking and storage technologies, which is better than replacing dated infrastructure on old sites, McCarron said.

Su touted Genoa as providing significant performance and power efficiency benefits, which will help datacenter providers and companies meet sustainability goals.

“Server-grade CPUs are much higher-power parts than they were a decade ago, and that introduces challenges not just in cooling, but also in power delivery. That said, AMD’s claim of 2.6x energy efficiency is validated by customers,” said James Sanders, principal analyst for cloud, infrastructure, and quantum at CCS Insights.

During a webcast of the live event Su reminded the audience of how far the company had come with Epyc chips. The world’s fastest supercomputer, called Frontier, is based on Epyc chips. There are nearly 600 instances with Epyc chips available through cloud providers, Su said.

“At this juncture, AMD has established a record of delivering on schedule, and has the public support of major server OEMs and hyperscale cloud platforms,” Sanders said.

For example, HPE formally launched its 11th-generation ProLiant servers with Ampere’s Arm-based CPUs and AMD’s new CPUs, but Intel-powered SKUs are still not available. Microsoft’s Azure has confidential computing offerings around features in AMD’s Epyc chips.

Intel’s Three-year Plan to Regain Leadership

While AMD is basking in the spotlight with breakthroughs like Genoa, Intel is patiently fixing in-house problems as it restructures its business around manufacturing. The focus is on worrying less on competition, and to return to the company’s roots of engineering excellence, McCarron said.

Pat Gelsinger holds up Ponte Vecchio GPU (March 2021)

Intel’s CEO Gelsinger has laid out a three-year project which involves cost cuts, layoffs, and changing internal culture to think first about manufacturing. The company has also invested billions of dollars to establish new factories, and expects to receive government assistance as part of the US CHIPS Act passed earlier this year.

Intel ceded server market share to AMD due to mismanagement and poor execution on products. Gelsinger has stressed discipline on cost and investments as Intel tries to align execution of business plans by 2025. Intel is bucking its typical two-year advances in manufacturing by jumping four nodes in five years, and is also adjusting operations with the possibility of a recession in the coming months.

The Sapphire Rapids server chip was a casualty of Intel’s poor execution, but that is now behind the company, Gelsinger said during a financial earnings call last month. Sapphire Rapid’s successors, which includes next year’s Emerald Rapids, and Granite Rapids in 2024, are healthy and in good shape, Gelsinger said.

The marriage of Intel’s product and manufacturing strategies in servers will come together with a chip codenamed Falcon Shore, which is designed to blur the lines between the company’s Xeon CPUs and Xe GPUs. The chip will take advantage of Intel’s latest manufacturing and packaging technology, which will be able to place tiles of CPUs, GPUs and accelerators much closer to each other.

“This architecture allows us to also have flexibility of custom tiles or custom chiplets that either Intel or third parties develop, [and] we can utilize that same foundation offered by this architecture to be able to scale … which you could imagine opens up the door to many incarnations. We’re excited about the possibilities that affords,” said Jeff McVeigh, vice president and general manager at Intel’s Super Compute Group, during a press briefing.

Intel’s server chips are making a mark in supercomputing with many Sapphire Rapids parts going to Aurora, CCS Insights’ Sanders said. Aurora, which will be deployed at the Argonne National Laboratory, is expected to deliver 2 exaflops of performance.

“High-performance computing is a useful halo product to demonstrate the ability of a part for marketing purposes, but Intel will need to deliver in volume to compete with AMD for cloud and datacenter compute,” Sanders said.

Intel this week announced new chips that provide an early preview of how the company’s chips will look as it restructures operations. The Intel Max Series product family has two high-performance computing chips: the Xeon CPU Max Series, which combines Sapphire Rapids CPUs with high-bandwidth memory, and the Data Center GPU Max Series, which is codenamed Ponte Vecchio.

The Xeon Max CPU is the first and only x86-based processor with high bandwidth memory, McVeigh said. The CPU has up to 56 “Intel 7” cores, 64GB of HBM2e memory, 1 TB/s of memory bandwidth, and it draws 350 watts of power. The chip has 20 accelerators, and supports the CXL interconnect.

The Max Series GPU, which is based on the chiplet design, combines 47 tiles in a single package. It will come in multiple configurations. Overall, the chip package has 100 billion transistors and has HBM2e memory. The new chips are mainly bound for supercomputers and have matrix extensions for artificial intelligence applications.

Competition Is Good for Customers

The innovation resulting from the Intel and AMD rivalry is a win for the server and supercomputing industry. One such innovation is the Compute Express Link (CXL) interconnect, which is included in both Genoa and Sapphire Rapids, and provides a base for mass deployment of the technology.

“CXL is the most impactful change to come to enterprise infrastructure in well over a decade, as it will allow for greater flexibility in how individual hardware components are aggregated into computing infrastructure,” Sanders said.

The feature allows greater composability of virtualized infrastructure, with the ability to scale out or scale up from pools of processor, memory, storage, and network capacity without hardware wastage.

This will help lower the operating costs of cloud platforms, a savings which will hopefully be passed on to cloud customers, Sanders said.

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