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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  • n31l - Sunday, June 4, 2017 - link

    not sure about that.. I've just done the 'microcode' unlock of a 2695 v3 (x99 single socket system) even with such an old architecture, with all 14 cores fully stressed @3199, no core goes above 50c, they have plenty or room to move on clock rates 'if' they wanted..

    I think Intel is just trying to find out where 'threadripper' will fit within the market.. worst case.., all they need to do is shift 'families' left bring the E7 to E5 and stop selling E5-16xx (i7 consumer parts) with a Xeon premium (especially now v4's are locked!! How I'll miss E5-1620@4.6 with ECC memory)

    Unfortunately, imho, Intel can only deal with AMD in a half-arsed manor, if they wanted they could kill AMD but then they will be broken up for being a monopoly if they do.. damned if you do, damned if you don't..

    Personally I'd like to see Nvidia and Intel cross-licencing to 'officially' come to an end and for Nvidia to revive the 'Transmeta x86' IP they bought (but weren't allowed to use due to GPU licence agreement) or maybe for Microsoft to extend what's happening with windows on 'ARM' and just let NVidia lose amongst the pigeons.. or crazier still, as I believe Microsoft still has the 'golden' share option from the xbox days.. how about they buy Nvidia and make a custom 'windows CPU' and take google on head first before it's too late.. ;-)
  • theuglyman0war - Thursday, June 8, 2017 - link

    what do u consider a hedt scenario that doesn't leverage moar cores?
    Workstation? A workstation creative that doesn't render interactively? Light baking complex radiosity?
    If I did not scream at progress bars aLL DAY. I would have no reason to upgrade for years now. I do not see that happening in my lifetime and if I keep screaming at progress bars without relief I will eventually commit bloody criminal solutions perhaps even to my poor suffering soul. Considering 90 percent of my progress bars are wrecked everytime I advance advanced cores...
    I wonder what is this hedt market that does not leverage moar cores?
  • 3DVagabond - Monday, June 19, 2017 - link

    Nah. They'll just sell their's for $999.
  • Chaitanya - Tuesday, May 30, 2017 - link

    Intel desperately scrambling for ideas.
  • mschira - Tuesday, May 30, 2017 - link

    Are they kidding? In what world do they live?
    I rather get a dual socket AMD system for the same money. If I would care enough about that many thread performance.

    Thank God AMD got their act back together, Intel has gone completely insane.
  • nevcairiel - Tuesday, May 30, 2017 - link

    Considering how much the 10-core BDW-E already cost before, $2000 is actually lower then I would have expected.
  • Notmyusualid - Tuesday, May 30, 2017 - link


  • ddriver - Tuesday, May 30, 2017 - link

    Considering it is actually a xeon they'd sell for 4000$ had there not been the desperate need to save face, 2000$ as expressive as it may be, is quite generous of intel, you know... relative to their standards for generosity...
  • smilingcrow - Tuesday, May 30, 2017 - link

    Broadwell-EP 18 Core parts start at under $2,500 so Skylake-EP or whatever it will be called will likely offer more cores per dollar and that is the comparison to be made.
    Intel can make as many of them as they like so selling them at 'only' $2k to prosumers hardly undermines their business model as it's not as if they will end up in true Workstations/Servers anyway.
    I don't see that much financial upside or downside to Intel for HEDT parts over $1K as that's a small market.
    But AMD are putting downward price pressure on the sub $1K chips which will hurt more.
    Plus the 16 Core AMD part is likely usable in a Workstation/Server with it supporting ECC memory so that is another attack on Intel.
    So I think you have missed the mark in giving much emphasis to these re-positioned HCC chips, the play is elsewhere.
  • theuglyman0war - Thursday, June 8, 2017 - link

    I am hoping the $849 16 core threadripper rumor is true. As awesome as that would be it still comes down to benchmarks. A workstation u will b suffering with for 2 or 3 years because it owns now vs the hassle of upgrading the cheaper solution every year that doesn't quite own. Where that line lie with me usually depends on how impressed I am at the time saved rendering extreme complexity. Or how much those core make my pipeline more interactive/productive. The more AMD forces Intel to cannibalize the XEON line the better. Kind of bitter that AMD wasn't more hedt relevant for a while now. Kind of wonder why they did not spend the bucks on the architecture talent for all these years if that's all it took to jump start things like the current excitement. And I haven't been excited like this in a long time.

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