So far AMD is making good progress in its return to profitability, but it's too early to raise the "mission accomplished" banner.
The key for AMD to return to more robust profitability is to move into more profitable segments of the industries that it already is in and reenter the server market. To do so, it has to move up the performance and price stack, as it did with the Ryzen processor for high performance PCs.
The one area where AMD has the most growth opportunity is in the $21 billion server market. Around 2005, AMD had more than 20 percent market share of the x86 server business with its Opteron processors. The company now readily admits it has nearly zero presence in the data center market.
AMD hopes to change all that with a new Zen-based server processor code-named Naples. At its analyst event this week it gave these chips the Epyc brand.
Beyond the name and the epic jokes, this chip has potential to disrupt today’s cloud data centers. The Epyc processor has 32 cores that support 64 threads, and it has 128 lanes of I/O and eight channels of memory, bringing a new level of balance between memory, I/O and compute.
Just one Epyc processor can potentially replace two mainstream Intel Xeon processors. A single-socket Epyc server can actually replace a dual-socket Intel Xeon server, potentially changing the cost dynamics for cloud data centers.
Epyc also supports dual-socket configurations and can compete and beat Intel’s dual-socket Xeon’s as well. We’ll have to wait for the company to reveal the pricing information at the official launch in the second half of June to see how attractive the company makes the parts.
Interestingly, the Epyc processor is not based on a single die, but rather a multichip module composed of four smaller die. Each has eight processor cores and is roughly the same die as in AMD’s Ryzen PC processor.
Tying the four ingredient die together is AMD’s Infinity interconnect that can be used on die, between die in package or between packaged parts. The scalable fabric allows AMD to build the processor more cost effectively.
AMD's Epyc server processor puts four die on its Infinity fabric. (Image: AMD)
This contrasts with the Volta GPU that Nvidia pushed the very limits of manufacturability with an 815 mm² die. By contrast, AMD built a high performance server processor composed of four die, each of which is approximately 200 mm2. The AMD approach is much more cost-effective thanks in part to better yields, but it requires a little bit of operating system support for maximum scalability of its non-uniform memory architecture.
At the event, AMD revealed a server processor roadmap beyond Naples. Over the next three years, the company will release the Rome processor in a 7nm process using a second generation Zen core and a Milan processor in a 7nm+ process using a third generation Zen core.
AMD also revealed a new premium PC processor with 16 cores supporting 32 threads called Ryzen Threadripper. Although no pricing was given, I expect this CPU to cost more than $1,000. AMD would not confirm it, but I expect Threadripper is based on two die in a multichip module.
The company also released information on its forthcoming Vega GPU architecture expected to launch in the second half of June. The first Vega card will be called the Frontier Edition and will target machine learning workloads with up to 16 GBytes of HBM2 memory. Early benchmarks indicate the high-end Vega card will be competitive with Nvidia’s Pascal P100 GPU, but it looks to be significantly behind the performance of Nvidia’s Volta on machine learning.
With up to 25 TFlops of 16-bit floating point performance, Vega at least gets AMD into the machine-learning conversation. Perhaps future Vega GPUs can be connected together on one substrate as AMD did with the Epyc. AMD’s Radeon group also showed its 2020 roadmap with a 7nm Navi GPU followed by a yet unnamed 7nm+ GPU.
Overall, AMD plans to use a mix of wafers from Globalfoundries and TSMC for the 7nm and 7nm+ processors. Presently the company primarily uses Globalfoundries for its 14nm Ryzen, Epyc, and Vega products.
--Kevin Krewell is a principal analyst at Tirias Research