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Intel seeks broader platform play with Ice Lake

Company is counting on performance improvements from its third-generation Xeon ‘Ice Lake’ chip and its broader platform strategy to regain its mojo in the market

Intel is counting on its new third-generation Xeon “Ice Lake” processor and the value of its platform in an all-out move to reclaim its mojo in the datacentre market.

Speaking to Computer Weekly in an interview, Santhosh Viswanathan, vice-president for sales, marketing and communications group and managing director at Intel Asia-Pacific and Japan, said the new chip offers 50% performance improvement over its predecessor in workloads such as artificial intelligence (AI), internet of things (IoT), cloud, 5G and high-performance computing.

“From the edge to the cloud, you’ll see a huge uptick in some of the most common workloads,” he said. “For example, in the cloud, it’s about 1.5 times improvement in latency sensitive workloads like Java or MySQL, while in AI workloads, such as the Bert natural language processing model, you’ll see 1.74 times increase in performance.”

But Intel is not counting on raw CPU performance alone. With the launch of Ice Lake, the chipmaker also took the chance to address key datacentre system bottlenecks such as memory – for example, through its Optane persistent memory 200 series, which has 32% higher bandwidth and almost 6TB per socket.

Viswanathan said Intel’s new Ethernet 800 series network adapters also support about 200Gbps of throughput per port, enabling data to be moved almost twice as fast as before. “It’s not just the CPU running faster; it’s also about other elements that make systems and applications go faster,” he added.

The latest enhancements are part of a broader strategy to help enterprises store, process and move data across different infrastructure environments, said Viswanathan. He added that the work is not done yet and Intel will keep raising the bar.

“Customers aren’t demanding more performance,” he said. “When they store a lot of data, they want us to move that data as fast as we can, so that they can analyse it, apply AI to it and make their workloads pervasive.”

With Ice Lake, Intel is set to revive its “tick-tock” strategy of alternating improvements in manufacturing process and microarchitecture with every new chip release. The new Xeon processor has both elements of the well-known cadence, as it marks Intel’s move to the 10nm manufacturing process and the new Sunny Cove microarchitecture at the same time.

The cadence, which had been in place since 2007, was deprecated in 2016 due to delays in Intel’s advances in the 10mn process, which touts power and frequency advantages. Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger has indicated that the company is looking to rejuvenate its tick-tock cycle that could bring more frequent improvements in process technology and microarchitectures.

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During the first quarter of 2021, Intel reported $5.6bn in revenue in its datacentre group, down by about 20% on the same quarter last year. It has been ceding some ground to rival AMD even as it continues to dominate the market for server processors.

Asked whether Ice Lake will help Intel win back market share, Viswanathan reiterated that the company has gone beyond CPUs to deliver a complete platform to help its customers succeed.

“Also, the way we look at market share is very different,” he added. “Intel has been transitioning from a CPU company to what we call an XPU company where the addressable market is much bigger.

“We see ourselves as a player with a 30% share in a much wider market, rather than a company with over 90% share of the CPU market.”

The next big challenge for Intel is to continue building products across all market segments, said Viswanathan.

“For example, when you see a telco base station, you will see Intel inside. A few years ago, you would’t see any Intel product in the base station. Those are the opportunities that we’re going after.”

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