In the Battle for the Data Center, the incumbent has taken the field. With today’s launch of its new Ice Lake family of 10 nm processors, chip giant Intel brings new levels of power and efficiency to its market-leading server platform.
The new 3rd Gen Intel Xeon Scalable Processors arrive with broad support from the IT industry’s largest players, with more than 200,000 units already shipped to early adopters, including leading cloud service providers.
The 3rd Gen Xeon processors – known by the codename “Ice Lake” – headline a portfolio of new Intel offerings spanning Optane persistent memory and storage, Ethernet adapters, FPGAs and software. As usual, Intel is touting the improved power and efficiency in its 3rd Gen Xeon platform, including built-in acceleration for artificial intelligence workloads.
But Intel’s rollout is notable for showcasing the versatility of the new chips for workloads ranging from the cloud to the network (including 5G wireless) to edge computing.
“Our 3rd Gen Intel Xeon Scalable platform is the most flexible and performant in our history, designed to handle the diversity of workloads from the cloud to the network to the edge,” said Navin Shenoy, executive vice president and general manager of the Data Platforms Group at Intel. “Intel is uniquely positioned with the architecture, design and manufacturing to deliver the breadth of intelligent silicon and solutions our customers demand.”
A ‘New Intel’ for a Changing Landscape
The new Xeons enter a changed chip landscape, amid a resurgence for rivals NVIDIA and AMD, growing momentum for ARM server chips, and a wave of innovation from hardware startups focused on the AI market. Meanwhile, Intel is seeking to reassert itself after numerous delays with its 10nm process for Ice Lake, prompting concerns that the chip giant had lost its manufacturing mojo.
The chief evangelist for this effort is new CEO Pat Gelsinger, an Intel veteran who took the helm in February after a strong run as CEO of VMware.
“Intel is back,” Gelsinger said last month, as he announced a $20 billion investment in new chip fabs in Arizona. “The old Intel is the new Intel.”
Intel is positioning the Ice Lake family as powerful enough to turbocharge your AI and HPC applications, but flexible enough to support whatever else you’re running in a rapidly-changing enterprise IT environment.
Intel’s leadership in general purpose computing has given it a dominant position in the enterprise IT market. But the rise of artificial intelligence has altered the computing landscape, placing a premium on extreme horsepower and boosting adoption of GPUs and a bevy of domain-specific architectures optimized for AI. Intel says that 80 percent of emerging technologies have their foundations in AI computing.
“AI is being used everywhere,” said Lisa Spelman, corporate vice president in the Xeon and Memory Group at Intel. “Xeon is the only data center processor with built-in AI acceleration.”
The on-board acceleration offers an alternative to pairing an Intel CPU with an NVIDIA GPU, a common deployment model for high performance computing (HPC) and AI workloads. Intel is touting this approach as the best way to manage a diverse set of AI workloads, with 3rd Gen Intel Xeon chips that can be configured for 20 to 40 cores.
The game has also been changed by the ascendance of hyperscale computing, which now accounts for a growing share of new server sales. The cloud specialists are a different breed, who customize much of their data center hardware and work closely with chipmakers, server vendors and fabricators.
For Enterprises, Flexibility Addresses Pandemic Shifts
Intel’s focus on flexibility and wide range of platform offerings will hold appeal for enterprise customers. Although AI is front of mind, many enterprise IT shops are adapting for a COVID-altered world that has focrd rapid shifts in their IT infrastructure, especially the rapid adoption of remote work.
Analysts expect that enterprises will continue to retool their infrastructure to span hybrid architectures that include on-premises facilities, third-party data centers (colocation) and cloud platforms.
Intel’s focus on balance and versatility, and the continuity of its familiar x86 platform, will resonate with enterprise customers.
The 3rd Gen Intel Xeon Scalable platform features a range of supporting product offerings to address customer needs, including:
- Intel Optane persistent memory and SSD
- Intel Ethernet 800 series adapters
- Intel SGX software for privacy and security
- Intel Agilex FPGA (field programmable gating arrays)
For those interested in detailed technical analyses, there are several deep dives into the Ice Lake platform from the semiconductor specialist press:
- Intel Fields A 10 Nanometer Server Chip That Competes (The Next Platform): “Despite all of the woes, provided that Intel can make enough of them using its still-maturing 10 nanometer process, Intel can stand toe to toe against AMD’s Epycs, Ampere Computing’s Altras, and IBM’s Power9 and maybe even its future Power10,” writes Timothy Prickett Morgan.
- Intel Ice Lake Launch Reminds Us That CPUs Are Complex (Cambrian-AI Research): Karl Freund writes that manufacturing delays meant Ice Lake “could not rise to meet AMD’s high bar for straight-out scalar performance enabled by AMD engineering and TSMC 7nm manufacturing. So Intel’s marketing team pivoted to focus on what I would term ‘The Rest of the Story’, where Intel can rightly claim superiority across a broad spectrum of important technology. “
- Intel 3rd Gen Xeon: Generationally Big, Competitively Small (AnandTech): “With this new generation, Intel’s offering is aimed to be two-fold: first, the generational uplift compared to 2nd Gen, but also the narrative around selling a solution rather than simply selling a processor,” notes AnandTech.