Conclusion & End Remarks

The server landscape is changing very quickly. While the promise of Arm servers for many years has been just that – this year’s introduction of the Graviton2 marked the tipping point where Arm server chips no longer represented a niche use-case, but rather a real – and competitive option. The only problem with Graviton2 was that this was an internal Amazon-only solution – so you couldn’t really say it was an option against AMD or Intel.

That’s where Ampere Computing steps in, positioning themselves as an open merchant silicon vendor, and the first to use and deploy Arm’s new Neoverse CPU line-up in such a way. The Altra QuickSilver being the very first attempt at this, truly hits it out of the park and matches the high expectations of the silicon.

Ampere’s approach is significantly more aggressive, with more performance, and more power, than what the Graviton2 aimed for – the new 80-core Q80-33 flagship SKU essentially has managed to match the performance of AMD’s flagship Rome chip – the 64-core EPYC 7742. While personally that didn’t surprise me much, I could imagine that for many readers out there this to come as an unexpected turn of events.

The Altra Q80-33 sometimes beats the EPYC 7742, and loses out sometimes – depending the workload. The Altra’s strengths lie in compute-bound workloads where having 25% more cores is an advantage. The Neoverse-N1 cores clocked at 3.3GHz can more than match the per-core performance of Zen2 inside the EPYC CPUs.

There are still workloads in which the Altra doesn’t do as well – anything that puts higher cache pressure on the cores will heavily favours the EPYC as while 1MB per core L2 is nice to have, 32MB of L3 shared amongst 80 cores isn’t very much cache to go around. Generally, I think the mesh interconnect remains a weak-point for this generation of Neoverse products and there’s improvements to be done in the next iteration of designs.

Today we’ve tested the Wiwynn based “Mount Jade” 2S Ampere Altra server – the Altra’s support for dual-socket platforms is functional, but relying on CCIX instead of a native coherency protocol between CPU cores in the two sockets means that performance isn’t nearly as good as the scaling we see from AMD or Intel. The single-socket “Mount Snow” Altra platforms as well as the platform solutions from GIGABYTE might be a better option for some deployments.

In terms of power-efficiency, the Q80-33 really operates at the far end of the frequency/voltage curves at 3.3GHz. While the TDP of 250W really isn’t comparable to the figures of AMD and Intel are publishing, as average power consumption of the Altra in many workloads is well below that figure – ranging from 180 to 220W – let’s say a 200W median across a variety of workloads, with few workloads actually hitting that peak 250W. I would say that yes, the Altra does have a power efficiency advantage over AMD’s EPYC platform, but not something that is overly significant enough to say that it completely changes the landscape.

Ampere 1st Gen Altra 'QuickSilver'
Product List
AnandTech Cores Frequency TDP PCIe DDR4 Price
Q80-33
(Tested)
80 3.3 GHz 250 W 128x G4 8 x 3200 $4050
Q80-30 80 3.0 GHz 210 W 128x G4 8 x 3200 $3950
Q80-26 80 2.6 GHz 175 W 128x G4 8 x 3200 $3810
Q80-23 80 2.3 GHz 150 W 128x G4 8 x 3200 $3700
Q72-30 72 3.0 GHz 195 W 128x G4 8 x 3200 $3590
Q64-33 64 3.3 GHz 220 W 128x G4 8 x 3200 $3810
Q64-30 64 3.0 GHz 180 W 128x G4 8 x 3200 $3480
Q64-26 64 2.6 GHz 125 W 128x G4 8 x 3200 $3260
Q64-24 64 2.4 GHz 95 W 128x G4 8 x 3200 $3090
Q48-22 48 2.2 GHz 85 W 128x G4 8 x 3200 $2200
Q32-17 32 1.7 GHz 45 W 128x G4 8 x 3200 $800

Where Ampere and the Altra definitely is beating AMD in is TCO, or total cost of ownership. Taking the flagship models as comparison points – the Q80-33 costs only $4050 which generally matching the performance of AMD’s EPYC 7742 which still comes in at $6950, essentially 42% cheaper. Of course, performance/$ will vary depending on workloads, but the Altra’s performance is so good that I don’t think it really changes the narrative of that large a cost difference. We’re really on basing this on both companies’ MSRP prices and we know for a fact many customers will be paying less than that for volume purchases and relying on discounts, but that can also apply to Ampere and the Altra.

One will note I didn’t make any mention of Intel yet - Intel’s current Xeon offering simply isn’t competitive in any way or form at this moment in time. Cascade Lake is twice as slow and half as efficient – so unless Intel is giving away the chips at a fraction of a price, they really make no sense. Ice Lake-SP is around the corner, but I don’t expect it to manage to bridge the performance or efficiency gap. Ampere and AMD here have free reign on the server market share – with Ampere having to cross the hurdle to convince customers to switch over from x86 to Arm.

Ampere is already shipping Altra systems to customers, with Oracle’s cloud business being the first big notable win for the company – signifying already very positive reactions in the market.

What we need to keep in mind though, is that today’s comparisons were against AMD’s EPYC 7742 which was launched almost 15 months ago. Rome’s successor, Milan, is already shipping to customers and has already started hitting the channel, and we expect to hear more about the Zen3-based EPYC chips in the coming weeks. I’m not expecting major leaps, but a 20% performance bump is pretty much a safe bet to make – it would beat the Q80-33 in more workloads and shift the balance a bit – but Ampere’s aggressive pricing would still be something for AMD to worry about.

What really excites me, is the potential of future Altra designs. Ampere has already announced that Altra-Max “Mystique” will be coming in 2021 – essentially a 128-core version of the same Neoverse-N1 platform used in the QuickSilver design today. We’ll have to see how that scales, but it’ll certainly be a compute monster. The real big deal will be the 5nm 2022 “Siryn” design – if Ampere adopts the Neoverse-V1 CPU core from Arm, and I hope they will, then that would signify at minimum  a +50% performance uplift, which is massive.

The Altra overall is an astounding achievement – the company has managed to meet, and maybe even surpass all expectations out of this first-generation design. With one fell swoop Ampere managed to position itself as a top competitor in the server CPU market. The Arm server dream is no longer a dream, it’s here today, and it’s real.

Compiling LLVM, NAMD Performance
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  • realbabilu - Friday, December 18, 2020 - link

    well it support fortran also using Arm Fortran Compiler, unlike m1. Reply
  • realbabilu - Friday, December 18, 2020 - link

    my bad. Numerical Algorithms Group (Nag) has fortran for m1. lets battle begin X86 vs arm Reply
  • GruenSein - Friday, December 18, 2020 - link

    The userbase for fortran on M1 is probably super small anyway. Although.. I can see the HPC cluster entirely made up of Macbook Airs before my eye. Just like the PS3-cluster the air force used to have ;) Reply
  • davidorti - Friday, December 18, 2020 - link

    Wouldn't it be way cheaper a cluster of minis? Reply
  • Flunk - Friday, December 18, 2020 - link

    No, the hardware would be cheaper but the maintenance would be much more time-intensive. That's why companies that need a lot of processing hardware buy enterprise level hardware. The cost of maintaining the system quickly eclipses the hardware costs. And if you're using a computer to make money, quite often the hardware cost is only a small amount of your costs. Reply
  • FunBunny2 - Friday, December 18, 2020 - link

    I dunno about the "quite often the hardware cost is only a small amount of your costs." part. as modern production methods have been ever more automated, (I'm talkin to you, bitcoin mining), there's almost no other cost. now, some may argue, in the extreme case of mining for instance, that power is the largest component; but isn't that 'hardware' cost? it certainly isn't labor or interest or land or even CxOs' cut. fewer and fewer automation efforts are conducted in assembler or even naked C or java or FORTRAN, but in frameworks, often with bespoke syntax and with headcounts way lower than their native languages. so, yeah, now into the foreseeable future, hardware is the biggest byte. Reply
  • at_clucks - Friday, December 18, 2020 - link

    The point was a cluster of Minis would probably be cheaper than a cluster of Airs because why pay for screen, battery, keyboard and all that. Reply
  • Spunjji - Monday, December 21, 2020 - link

    True, but I did enjoy the holistic response. Just think of the potential: batteries are a built-in UPS, and you don't need to mess about with any sort of KVM arrangement - if a node drops out, you can go right to it and poke it to find out what's up! Reply
  • ProDigit - Saturday, December 19, 2020 - link

    I guess the results showing lower TDP despite 100% load, means that the cores are sometimes idling for a part of their clock frequency.
    It means the cpu is lacking buffers, and isn't fully optimized.
    Reply
  • mode_13h - Sunday, December 20, 2020 - link

    Buffers and even cache can't completely avoid memory bottlenecks.

    Also, you can run a core 100% on code with very little parallelism and not draw much power. Code with lots of ILP and especially vector arithmetic burns a lot more power, which is why AVX2 and especially AVX-512 trigger significant clock-throttling on Intel.
    Reply

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