Announcement Two: High Core Count Skylake-X Processors

The twist in the story of this launch comes with the next batch of processors. In our pre-briefing came something unexpected: Intel is bringing the high core count silicon from the enterprise side down to consumers. I’ll cover the parts and then discuss why this is happening.

The HCC die for Skylake is set to be either 18 or 20 cores. I say or, because there’s a small issue with what we had originally thought. If you had asked me six months ago, I would have said that the upcoming HCC core, based on some information I had and a few sources, would be an 18-core design. As with other HCC designs in previous years, while the LCC design is a single ring bus around all the cores, the HCC design would offer a dual ring bus, potentially lopsided, but designed to have an average L3 cache latency with so many cores without being a big racetrack (insert joke about Honda race engines). Despite this, Intel shared a die image of the upcoming HCC implementation, as in this slide:

It is clear that there are repeated segments: four rows of five, indicating the presence of a dual ring bus arrangement. A quick glance might suggest a 20 core design, but if we look at the top and bottom segments of the second column from the left: these cores are designed slightly differently. Are these actual cores? Are they different because they support AVX-512 (a topic discussed later), or are they non-cores, providing die area for something else? So is this an 18-core silicon die or a 20-core silicon die? We’ve asked Intel for clarification, but we were told to await more information when the processor is launched. Answers on a tweet @IanCutress, please.

So with the image of the silicon out of the way, here are the three parts that Intel is planning to launch. As before, all processors support hyperthreading.

Skylake-X Processors (High Core Count Chips)
  Core i9-7940X Core i9-7960X Core i9-7980XE
14/28 16/32 18/36
Clocks TBD
PCIe Lanes TBD
(Likely 44)
Memory Freq TBD
Price $1399 $1699 $1999

As before, let us start from the bottom of the HCC processors. The Core i9-7940X will be a harvested HCC die, featuring fourteen cores, running in the same LGA2066 socket, and will have a tray price of $1399, mimicking the $100/core strategy as before, but likely being around $1449-$1479 at retail. No numbers have been provided for frequencies, turbo, power, DRAM or PCIe lanes, although we would expect DDR4-2666 support and 44 PCIe lanes, given that it is a member of the Core i9 family.

Next up is the Core i9-7960X, which is perhaps the name we would have expected from the high-end LCC processor. As with the 14-core part, we have almost no information except the cores (sixteen for the 7960X), the socket (LGA2066) and the price: $1699 tray ($1779 retail?). Reiterating, we would expect this to support at least DDR4-2666 memory and 44 PCIe lanes, but unsure on the frequencies.

The Core i9-7980XE sits atop of the stack as the halo part, looking down on all those beneath it. Like an unruly dictator, it gives nothing away: all we have is the core count at eighteen, the fact that it will sit in the LGA2066 socket, and the tray price at a rather cool $1999 (~$2099 retail). When this processor will hit the market, no-one really knows at this point. I suspect even Intel doesn’t know.

Analysis: Why Offer HCC Processors Now?

The next statement shouldn’t be controversial, but some will see it this way: AMD and ThreadRipper.

ThreadRipper is AMD’s ‘super high-end desktop’ processor, going above the eight cores of the Ryzen 7 parts with a full sixteen cores of their high-end microarchitecture. Where Ryzen 7 competed against Broadwell-E, ThreadRipper has no direct competition, unless we look at the enterprise segment.

Just to be clear, Skylake-X as a whole is not a response to ThreadRipper. Skylake-X, as far as we understand, was expected to be LCC only: up to 12 cores and sitting happy. Compared to AMD’s Ryzen 7 processors, Intel’s Broadwell-E had an advantage in the number of cores, the size of the cache, the instructions per clock, and enjoyed high margins as a result. Intel had the best, and could charge more. (Whether you thought paying $1721 for a 10-core BDW-E made sense compared to a $499 8-core Ryzen with fewer PCIe lanes, is something you voted on with your wallet). Pretty much everyone in the industry, at least the ones I talk to, expected more of the same. Intel could launch the LCC version of Skylake-X, move up to 12-cores, keep similar pricing and reap the rewards.

When AMD announced ThreadRipper at the AMD Financial Analyst Day in early May, I fully suspect that the Intel machine went into overdrive (if not before). If AMD had a 16-core part in the ecosystem, even at a lower 5-15% IPC to Intel, it would be likely that Intel with 12-cores might not be the halo product anymore. Other factors come into play of course, as we don’t know all the details of ThreadRipper such frequencies, or the fact that Intel has a much wider ecosystem of partners than AMD. But Intel sells A LOT of its top-end HEDT processor. I wouldn’t be surprised if the 10-core $1721 part was the bestselling Broadwell-E processor. So if AMD took that crown, Intel would lose a position it has held for a decade.

So imagine the Intel machine going into overdrive. What would be going through their heads? Competing in performance-per-dollar? Pushing frequencies? Back in the days of the frequency race, you could just slap a new TDP on a processor and just bin harder. In the core count race, you actually need physical cores to provide that performance, if you don’t have 33%+ IPC difference. I suspect the only way in order to provide a product in the same vein was to bring the HCC silicon to consumers.

Of course, I would suspect that inside Intel there was push back. The HCC (and XCC) silicon is the bread and butter of the company’s server line. By offering it to consumers, there is a chance that the business Intel normally gets from small and medium businesses, or those that buy single or double-digit numbers of systems, might decide to save a lot of money by going the consumer route. There would be no feasible way for Intel to sell HCC-based processors to end-users at enterprise pricing and expect everyone to be happy.

Knowing what we know about working with Intel for many years, I suspect that the HCC was the most viable option. They could still sell a premium part, and sell lots of them, but the revenue would shift from enterprise to consumer. It would also knock back any threat from AMD if the ecosystem comes into play as well.

As it stands, Intel has two processors lined up to take on ThreadRipper: the sixteen-core Core i9-7960X at $1699, and the eighteen-core Core i9-7980XE at $1999. A ThreadRipper design is two eight-core Zeppelin silicon designs in the same package – a single Zeppelin has a TDP of 95W at 3.6 GHz to 4.0 GHz, so two Zeppelin dies together could have a TDP of 190W at 3.6 GHz to 4.0 GHz, though we know that AMD’s top silicon is binned heavy, so it could easily come down to 140W at 3.2-3.6 GHz. This means that Intel is going to have to compete with those sorts of numbers in mind: if AMD brings ThreadRipper out to play at around 140W at 3.2 GHz, then the two Core i9s I listed have to be there as well. Typically Intel doesn’t clock all the HCC processors that high, unless they are the super-high end workstation designs.

So despite an IPC advantage and an efficiency advantage in the Skylake design, Intel has to ply on the buttons here. Another unknown is AMD’s pricing. What would happen if ThreadRipper comes out at $999-$1099?  

But I ask our readers this:

Do you think Intel would be launching consumer grade HCC designs for HEDT if ThreadRipper didn’t exist?

For what it is worth, kudos all around. AMD for shaking things up, and Intel for upping the game. This is what we’ve missed in consumer processor technology for a number of years.

(To be fair, I predicted AMD’s 8-core to be $699 or so. To see one launched at $329 was a nice surprise).

I’ll add another word that is worth thinking about. AMD’s ThreadRipper uses a dual Zeppelin silicon, with each Zeppelin having two CCXes of four cores apiece. As observed in Ryzen, the cache-to-cache latency when a core needs data in other parts of the cache is not consistent. With Intel’s HCC silicon designs, if they are implementing a dual-ring bus design, also have similar issues due to the way that cores are grouped. For users that have heard of NUMA (non-unified memory access), it is a tricky thing to code for and even trickier to code well for, but all the software that supports NUMA is typically enterprise grade. With both of these designs coming into consumer, and next-to-zero NUMA code for consumer applications (including games), there might be a learning period in performance. Either that or we will see software pinning itself to particular groups of cores in order to evade the issue entirely.

Announcement One: Low Core Count Skylake-X Processors Announcement Three: Skylake-X's New L3 Cache Architecture
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  • ddriver - Tuesday, May 30, 2017 - link

    You fail miserably at making a point. I am comparing the latest and greatest both companies had on the market at the time. Now back under the bridge with you!
  • Ranger1065 - Wednesday, May 31, 2017 - link

    ddriver, I always respect your perspective at Anandtech particularly when it differs from general opinion as, thankfully, it often does. I also admire the tenacity with which you stick to your guns. The comments section would certainly be an infinitely more boring and narrow minded place without you. Keep up your excellent posts.
  • fanofanand - Wednesday, May 31, 2017 - link

    He is the most entertaining person here, I love reading his take on things.
  • Ro_Ja - Thursday, June 1, 2017 - link

    Your comment is the reason why I scroll down this section.
  • Hxx - Tuesday, May 30, 2017 - link

    I dont think you understand the meaning of the word desperate at least in this context. Maybe intel redesigned their release schedule in response to ryzen who the f knows except their upper mngmt and thats irrelevant, in the end what matters is what the consumer gets and for what PRICE. If intel was truly desperate that we would have at least seen a price cut in their current cpu lineup and Im not seein that. These CPUs are also targeted at the enthusiast crowd and nowhere near Ryzen's price point so wheres the desperation again?
  • rarson - Wednesday, May 31, 2017 - link

    The marketing alone, never mind the fact that Intel's cannibalizing their own sales selling HCC chips to consumers, reeks of desperation.
  • DC Architect - Tuesday, May 30, 2017 - link

    If you think CIO's give a damn about "brand loyalty" over profit margins then you are high. Also... 99.8% of the people using computers couldn't tell you what a motherboard IS or what components are in their "hard drive box" let alone have any loyalty to those brands. The guys making the call on these kinds of decisions could give a rats ass what the guy on the floor wants when he can increase the margins by 100% and only lose 1% in IPC.

    We're not talking about server CPU's here that are parsing huge databases 24/7. That 1-5% IPC loss for your Joe Shmoe user matters a lot less when you can tell the CEO that you only need half your normal operating budget this year for workstations.
  • Icehawk - Tuesday, May 30, 2017 - link

    Brand loyalty is HUGE in the corporate/server marketplace, it's foolish to think otherwise. Most large companies lock in with one or two vendors and buy whatever they offer that closest fits their needs or are able to get custom orders if the volume is enough. Never in my 19 years in IT have I seen or used a single AMD server, and only in a very few (crappy) laptops. Even back in the Athlon days we would stick with Intel as they are a known quantity and well supported.

    Hell where I work now they buy i7s for their grunts when an i3 would be fine - but it is easier on accounting to just deal with one SKU and easier for IT as well to only deal with a single configuration. The hardware cost differential can be offset by factors such as these.

    On non server side, I am really happy to see AMD doing better - I probably will go with the 7820 though as I do value single threaded a lot (gaming) and also do a ton of reencoding to x265 where more cores would really help.
  • theuglyman0war - Thursday, June 8, 2017 - link

    to be fair... I assume all those TBD's certainly do represent an "upcoming" response to ryzen that we would not had seen to whatever degree the final form takes. And that is awesome.
    The healthy competitive market is officially TBD! :)
    Anyone with any reason is waiting for the dust to settle and the market to correct itself with a consumer response the way healthy markets should function.
  • alpha754293 - Friday, June 2, 2017 - link

    It's "funny" reading your comment only because so much of it is so wrong/unfounded on so many levels.

    I used to be a strictly AMD-only shop because they offered a much better economic efficiency (FLOP/$).

    Now, pretty much all of my new systems are all Intel because Intel is now better in terms of FLOP/$. (And also in just pure, brute-force performance).

    AMD really screwed the pooch when they went with the shared FPU between two ALU design in their MCMs rather than having a dedicated FPU PER ALU (something which the UltraSPARC Niagara T1 originally did, and then revised it with T2).

    It was choking/strangling itself. WHYYY Derrick Meyer (being a former EE himself) would allow that is beyond me.

    I pick it pretty much solely based on FLOP/$ (as long as the $ piece of it isn't SO high that I can't afford to pay for it/buy it).

    There ARE some times when you might want or even NEED a super high powered, many, many many core count system because if you can do a lot of development work deskside, you refine your model piece by piece without having to spend a great deal of time re-running the whole thing always, everytime; and once your model is set up, THEN you ship it/send it off to the cluster and let the cluster go at it.

    If you are doing your debugging work on the cluster, you're just taking valuable time from the cluster away. (Like when I am doing some of my simulation stuff, the volume of data that gets generated is in the TBs now, so having to send the data back and forth when you have "bad" data (say from a run that errored out) - you're literally just shovelling crap around, which takes time and doesn't do anything useful or productive.

    re: your 70 active systems
    On the assumption that they're ALL 3770K chips, that's about 280 cores. You can probably get yourself a bunch of these:

    to replace your compute farm.

    I would be willing to bet that between 2-4 of those can replace your entire farm and still give you better FLOP/$.

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