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Ampere's New 128-Core Altra CPU Targets Intel, AMD In The Cloud

'If you can scale out to a ton of cores with 128, Ampere Altra Max is going to give you the highest socket performance and the highest overall performance for those applications,' says Ampere executive Jeff Wittich of the chip designer's new 128-core, Arm-based server processors.

Ampere, a semiconductor startup founded and led by former Intel executive Renee James, has revealed a new 128-core, Arm-based server processor designed to take on Intel and AMD in the cloud.

The new processor, Altra Max, was unveiled Tuesday, three months after the Santa Clara, Calif.-based chipmaker launched its first product, the 80-core Altra. Like Apple, which revealed plans Monday to use Arm-based processors for Mac computers later this year, Ampere pays license fees to use silicon IP developed by British chip designer Arm to build its own specialized processors.

[Related: Top 500 Supercomputers: New No. 1 Uses Arm-Based Fujitsu CPUs]

Ampere, which is not to be confused with Nvidia's new Ampere GPU architecture, said the new 128-core Altra Max is best suited for scale-out and elastic cloud architectures and provides the "industry's highest socket-level performance and I/O scalability." The processor is expected to start sampling with customers in the fourth quarter.

At 128 cores, Altra Max has double the number of cores of AMD's 64-core EPYC Rome processors but the same number of threads, 128, because Altra Max doesn't support hyperthreading. But even without hyperthreading, the company said it can provide "ideal performance scaling."

Jeff Wittich, who had a 15-year career at Intel and is now senior vice president of products at Ampere, told CRN that the chipmaker was able to design processors that can provide better performance scaling than Intel and AMD as the number of cores go up. Beyond providing predictable high performance and scalability, Ampere also promises optimal power efficiency, he added.

"With x86 today, if you look at EPYC, as you fill up all of the physical cores and start to bring in all of the sibling threads, you don't get that much incremental performance from each of the sibling threads," he said. "And so whether that means that every [core's] performance is going down, or it means the incremental [cores] aren't really getting what they expect, this is not an ideal case for the cloud."

An AMD spokesperson said the chipmaker stands by its "record with cloud providers using EPYC right now across a variety of instance types for a variety of workloads."

"We’re in multiple instances from Azure, AWS, Oracle, Google, IBM, Tencent and others doing everything from HPC in the cloud, to memory bound computing, to general purpose, to burstable," the spokesperson added.

Intel also defended its processors, which are widely used by cloud service providers.

"Customers around the world have developed solutions and services optimized for Intel Xeon Scalable processors because of their proven performance on a wide range of workloads, steadfast reliability, and the broad ecosystem compatible with the Intel platform," an Intel spokesperson said.

Wittich said Altra Max is compatible with Altra's dual-socket server platforms and will share other features, like eight channels of DDR4 3,200GHz memory and 192 lanes of PCIe 4.0 connectivity.

"If you're more in the space of, 'I'm throughput-limited and I want to take advantage of all of that I/O and memory bandwidth and I'm not compute-bottlenecked,' great, Ampere Altra is awesome for you," he said. "If you can scale out to a ton of cores with 128, Ampere Altra Max is going to give you the highest socket performance and the highest overall performance for those applications."

Ampere didn't have any performance benchmarks for Altra Max, but Wittich said the original Altra processor has been shown to provide more than two times the performance of Intel's highest-end Xeon Scalable processor with 28 cores from the Cascade Lake Refresh lineup. In comparison to AMD's highest-end EPYC, Altra provides performance that is a couple of percentage points higher.

"These are 80 cloud-class, data center-class cores, delivering leading performance, more cores than anyone else, more performance at the SOC level than anyone else, as much memory bandwidth as anyone else and more than Intel and more I/O attached than anybody else," he said.

While Altra's flagship processor has 80 cores, the product actually consists of 11 SKUs, with four 80-core processors ranging in thermal dynamic power (TDP) from 150 to 250 watts and in frequency from 2.6GHz to 3.3 GHz. The midrange processor has 72 cores, 3GHz and a 195-watt TDP. Four additional processors have 64 cores, ranging in TDP from 95 watts to 220 watts and in frequency from 2.4GHz to 3.3GHz. The second-to-last Altra has 48 cores, 2.2GHz and an 85-watt TDP while the final SKU has 32 cores, 1.7GHz and a 45-watt to 58-watt TDP.

Beyond Altra Max—which like the original Altra—is based on Taiwanese chip foundry TSMC's 7-nanometer process technology—Wittich said the company has already taped out a 5nm processor that is set for volume production in 2022.

"So pretty fast cadence. We'll keep expanding core count, we'll keep expanding performance capabilities," he said. "I think it's a pretty exciting picture."

One of Ampere's early partners in the channel is Phoenics Electronics, a semiconductor and board distributor owned by Avnet, which plans to offer Ampere processors and servers in the coming months.

"Adding the Ampere Altra processor and associated servers to our portfolio will enable Phoenics to provide our customers with key solutions for cloud, storage, edge and other server applications," Peter Rooks, president of Phoenics Electronics, said in a statement.

Other early ecosystem supporters include security and performance services vendor Cloudflare, Android development tool provider Genymobile, GPU maker Nvidia, Equinix-owned bare metal instance provider Packet and cloud computing provider Scaleway.

"We are excited to extend our partnership with Ampere by providing early access to their new Ampere Altra processors," Zac Smith, managing director at Packet, said in a statement. "Our shared passion for pushing the boundaries of performance for cloud-native applications is complemented by an equally deep commitment to engaging with the software ecosystem early and often. With this early access program our users, and the community at large, can experience what's next with silicon, today."

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