Intel says Sapphire Rapids CPU delay will help AMD catch up

Our window to have leading server chips again is narrowing, exec admits

While Intel has bagged Nvidia as a marquee customer for its next-generation Xeon Scalable processor, the x86 giant has admitted that a broader rollout of the server chip has been delayed to later this year.

Sandra Rivera, Intel's datacenter boss, confirmed the delay of the Xeon processor, code-named Sapphire Rapids, in a Tuesday panel discussion at the BofA Securities 2022 Global Technology Conference. Earlier that day at the same event, Nvidia's CEO disclosed that the GPU giant would use Sapphire Rapids, and not AMD's upcoming Genoa chip, for its flagship DGX H100 system, a reversal from its last-generation machine.

Intel has been hyping up Sapphire Rapids as a next-generation Xeon CPU that will help the chipmaker become more competitive after falling behind AMD in technology over the past few years. In fact, Intel hopes it will beat AMD's next-generation Epyc chip, Genoa, to the market with industry-first support for new technologies such as DDR5, PCIe Gen 5 and Compute Express Link.

However, Sapphire Rapids has now seen multiple delays. In June of last year, Intel said it was delaying production of the chip from the fourth quarter of 2021 to the first quarter of 2022, with plans to ramp up shipments in the second quarter. And this came after Intel faced several years of delays in making the 10nm node behind the chip viable for mass production.

A rendering of Nvidia's new DGX H100 system

Nvidia taps Intel's Sapphire Rapids CPU for Hopper-powered DGX H100

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At the Tuesday event, Rivera said Intel now plans to start ramping up production of Sapphire Rapids "later in the year than what we had originally forecasted." She said the delay is needed for additional "platform and product validation time," echoing a reason given for the previous delay.

The executive was careful to note that the delay was not the result of any issues with Sapphire Rapids' advanced 10nm node, which Intel renamed to Intel 7 last year [PDF] to reflect its belief that the manufacturing process is equivalent to the 7nm nodes provided by foundry rivals TSMC and Samsung. She pointed to Intel's Alder Lake chips for PCs and laptops, which debuted last fall, as evidence of Intel 7's well-being.

Rivera reiterated previous claims by Intel that Sapphire Rapids will be a "leadership" product when it's made available. However, she said the period during which the CPU will hold that title will be shorter than expected because the delay means that AMD's Genoa chip, slated to launch later this year, will now arrive soon after Sapphire Rapids begins to ramp.

"We would have liked more of that gap, more of that leadership window for our customers in terms of when we originally forecasted the product to be out and ramping in high volume, but because of the additional platform validation that we're doing, that window is a bit shorter. So it will be leadership — it depends on where the competition lands," she said.

We would have liked more of that gap, more of that leadership window for our customers in terms of when we originally forecasted the product to be out and ramping in high volume

Despite these delays, Rivera said "demand is still very high" for Sapphire Rapids, which server makers and so-called hyperscalers have already received to validate the chip on their platforms. However, she admitted that "not all customers are going to move to Sapphire in one step."

Whereas a compute-heavy company like Nvidia will take advantage of the chip's support for new technologies like DDR5 and its improvements in performance and total cost of ownership, she said other companies will continue to look to Ice Lake, Intel's Xeon Scalable CPU that launched in early 2021, for "strong value" and "strong compute capability."

"Ice Lake continues to grow. We had record revenue in Q4 [of 2021], we had another record revenue and volume in Q1. And Ice Lake, certainly for 2022, will be the highest volume product as we ramp Sapphire later in this year and then, of course, throughout '23," she said.

Rivera restated Intel's plan to release the follow-up chip to Sapphire Rapids, Emerald Rapids, in the second half of 2023 and said it will provide a "nice performance bump in terms of the memory, the networking and the overall performance" while fitting into the same socket.

This will make Emerald Rapids "a much easier upgrade for our customers," she said, adding that it will also give them "a bigger return on the investment in the platform and all those innovations."

We think it's likely AMD will give an update on Genoa and future generations of Epyc chips at a financial analyst event that will be livestreamed on Thursday. In a May update, the rival chip designer said it was on track to launch Genoa later in the second half of the year.

It's important to note that AMD isn't the only threat Intel faces in the datacenter on the CPU side. Companies like Amazon Web Services and Ampere Computing, for instance, are claiming advantages against Intel's chips with new processors based on Arm's architecture, and Nvidia plans to debut its first Arm-based server chip, Grace, in the first half of 2023.

Rivera said that Arm's CPU share in the server market is "quite small" right now. However, she acknowledged that cloud service providers are interested in chip architectures that offer an alternative to the way Intel's Xeon chips have traditionally been designed, which is why the semiconductor giant plans to introduce the Sierra Forest chip in 2024 that uses its efficiency core design.

"A lot of those cloud customers that are looking at efficiency core types of workloads really don't want all of those additional features. They just want high-density throughput, single-threaded performance, and they want lots and lots of cores for some of the workloads," she said. ®

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