Intel Touts Sustainability Benefits of Sapphire Rapids Processors

By Oliver Peckham

January 11, 2023

The slowing of Moore’s law, rising energy costs and increasing climate regulations have led to ever-larger and ever-more-consequential energy footprints for datacenters – and, increasingly, manufacturers are playing to their customers’ growing concerns in this area. Intel is the latest to put sustainability front-and-center during a major product launch, touting the sustainability of its fourth-generation Xeon Scalable processors (codename: Sapphire Rapids) across several facets.

“You’re hearing us talk a lot about fourth-gen Xeon accelerators from a performance perspective,” Jennifer Huffstetler, Intel’s chief product sustainability officer, said in a press pre-briefing, “but the other really important way to think about them is from power efficiency improvements that they drive at the system and the rack level.” Intel is claiming that its latest processors, built on the Intel 7 node, deliver a 2.9× average improvement in performance-per-watt on “targeted workloads” thanks to the built-in Accelerator Engines, with some of that – but not all! – coming from the 1.53× average performance gain across generations. (Worth noting here that with a whopping 52 Sapphire Rapids SKUs, “average” is doing some heavy lifting; to learn more about the whole portfolio, read Tiffany’s coverage.)

Beyond that headline stat, Intel is also implementing firmware tools in the processors to enable even more power-efficient use. For instance, Huffstetler said, the CPUs’ new Optimized Power Mode delivers “lower power consumption by up to 20% for selected workloads with negligible [less than 5%] performance impact.” Intel also highlighted built-in telemetry tools that can be used to automatically tune frequencies in response to lower workloads or even to increase workloads when renewable energy is available for use (an underutilized sustainability tactic that we’ve covered at great length).

Intel also mentioned the efficiency potential for its new Intel On Demand service – formerly known as software-defined silicon – that allows customers to toggle or upgrade on-chip accelerators after purchase. Intel says that there is the potential for this functionality to be used to conserve power when different elements of the CPU are not needed, but that the fourth-generation Xeon CPUs represent a first step in this direction, with future generations likely to see that functionality more fully realized.

With the launch, Intel also announced an immersion cooling warranty rider for its chips (with approved liquids); an open-IP reference design for immersion cooling; and partner-developed, rack-level solutions for cold-plate designs that support Sapphire Rapids. The company also spotlit its efforts to support software that intersects with workload efficiencies (e.g. Kubernetes Power Manager, Kubernetes Telemetry Aware Scheduling, Intel Granulate).

Source: Intel

But even beyond the functions of the chips and host systems, Intel had much to say about sustainability in its launch announcement. “Our Scope 1 [emissions, which] we’ve been working on for decades, are very low,” Huffstetler said, referring to the carbon emissions that stem directly from sources owned by an organization (read more about emissions scopes here). “[They’re] 75% lower than our emissions would have been otherwise, absent our investment. So as a manufacturer, we’ve just made tremendous progress on Scope 1, which is the piece that we directly control.”

Beyond Scope 1, Huffstetler said, Intel used 80% renewable electricity globally last year and used between 90% and 100% renewable electricity in the production of the Xeon Scalable chips. Huffstetler – adding that there was “a lot of intentional effort there” – said that these metrics help Intel’s customers lower their Scope 3 emissions, which are the indirect emissions produced along an organization’s value chain. Intel also said that Sapphire Rapids production was supported by “state-of-the-art” water reclamation facilities that recycled 2.8 billion gallons of water in 2021 alone.

Still, sometimes the most sustainable car isn’t a new electric car – it’s the old car you already have: and on that front (the embodied carbon of its products) Intel is still working to articulate the sustainability proposition of its new products. “That’s something that we’re all starting to wrap our arms around,” Huffstetler said, though she did mention that “you can typically consolidate many, many servers into one [server] each time you’re refreshing.” According to Intel’s estimates (and depending on the workloads at hand), a customer with 50 third-generation Intel Xeon-based servers could downsize to 16-18 Sapphire Rapids-based servers, saving millions of dollars (and tens of thousands of kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent) in the process.

The most appropriate avenue for reducing carbon emissions in datacenters has been a subject of increasingly fierce debate, with increased skepticism over bold sustainability claims by hardware manufacturers. Still, it’s good – ceteris paribus – to see energy efficiency becoming a top-line item for major manufacturers, and Intel’s “most sustainable datacenter processor” seems poised to help its customers navigate the increasingly rough terrain of the global energy landscape.

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