Intel disclosed during its earnings call on Thursday that it had to respin its 4th Generation Xeon Scalable 'Sapphire Rapids' processor before initiating high-volume production. This redesign and tapeout took time, which is why Intel is delaying the volume ramp of SPR CPUs to late 2022. Meanwhile, the compute tile of Intel's Xeon 'Granite Rapids' processor, due in 2024, is on track to be powered later in Q3. Intel has also inked a deal with AWS to develop custom datacenter solutions.
Not So Brilliant for Sapphire Rapids
As it turns out, Intel's previous iteration of its next-generation Xeon Scalable 'Sapphire Rapids' processor had a security vulnerability that required mitigation in hardware.
As a consequence, Intel had to respin the CPU, mend the issue, tape out the new stepping, and then proceed with regular testing and validation procedures. This naturally postponed the volume launch of the product. Some Intel customers (probably among operators of hyperscale datacenters) are already running initial Sapphire Rapids processors unaffected by the security issue (perhaps because they come with certain features turned off).
"We were not shipping at the quality levels, the security levels that we needed to […] clearly we should not have had that bug in the product in the first place," said Pat Gelsinger, chief executive of Intel, at the company's earnings call. […] So, we did another [stepping], which I will say for the larger-volume SKUs, and those will be volume shipping in the second half of the year."
Intel has hundreds of customers with different requirements for its Xeon processors. For example, operators of hyperscale cloud datacenters usually require some specific features as well as high performance, but at times they do not need all the capabilities that Xeons have to offer. As a result, Intel can ship them new CPUs before general availability without any negative consequences. But for general customers like traditional server makers, Intel has to offer CPU models that will satisfy many types of customers with different workloads and software. Therefore, a bug in a chip may not affect giants like AWS, Meta, or Microsoft Azure. But it might affect enterprises with different needs and software stacks. Thus, it is better to fix the hardware issue before shipping.
But a new stepping (and consequent retesting/revalidation) automatically delays high-volume launch, which is why Intel will make its 4th Gen Xeon Scalable 'Sapphire Rapids' processors generally available only later this year. So while the production ramp of those CPUs will begin in 2022, it will progress well into 2023.
"Sapphire Rapids [is] ramping later," said Gelsinger. "We have some SKUs out, which is good, but the main SKUs are not out, and they happen later in the year. Of course, they will contribute way more significantly to next year than they are going to contribute to this year."
Intel admits that its Sapphire Rapids processors are late to the party, and they will be widely available only in 2023. What remains to be seen is how this affects the availability of Intel's 5th Generation 'Emerald Rapids' CPU that is socket compatible with Sapphire Rapids (and is made using the same Intel 7 aka 10nm Enhanced SuperFin process technology as SPR) and is set for a 2023 debut. However, for now, Intel has no plans to delay Emerald Rapids and claims that this CPU indeed looks 'healthy.'
"Emerald [Rapids] goes into the Sapphire [Rapids] platform, so we are working very closely with our customers and the timing there, the product is looking very healthy, so we are nicely on track," said Intel's CEO. "So that will be a 2023 product and then Granite [Rapids] and Sierra Forest are the 2024 products."
Granite Rapids to Power-On This Quarter
But while there are issues with Intel's 4th Generation Xeon Scalable 'Sapphire Rapids' processor, the development of one of its successors — the codenamed Granite Rapids CPU due in 2024 — seems to be proceeding OK.
"We have now taped in the first stepping of the Granite Rapids CPU and expect power-on this quarter," said the head of Intel. "In the second half of this year, we plan to tape in numerous internal and foundry customer test chips on various process nodes including Intel 3 and Intel 18A."
Intel's codenamed Granite Rapids is an important product for Intel. The CPU should arrive in 2024. It will use a brand-new platform that will succeed the upcoming socket LGA4677-based platform that will support Intel's 4th Gen Xeon Scalable 'Sapphire Rapids'ands 5th Gen Xeon Scalable 'Emerald Rapids' processors. It could carry the 6th Gen Xeon Scalable processor name while increasing performance and bringing additional functionality, which will improve Intel's competitive position on the server market.
The compute tile of Granite Rapids will be made using Intel 3 fabrication technology that promises to offer denser high-performance libraries, increased intrinsic drive current, and reduced via resistance — three features particularly beneficial for datacenter processors. Meanwhile, Intel says that its I3 node will bring an 18% performance/watt gain compared to its I4 node. Intel's I3 process node has never been listed for any upcoming client PC product by Intel (Meteor Lake with an I4 compute tile will be succeeded by Arrow Lake with an I20A compute tile), so we might speculate that this technology is indeed very well suited for heavy-duty datacenter applications rather than for regular client products.
Custom Datacenter Solutions for AWS
In addition, Intel announced during the call that it would develop custom datacenter solutions for Amazon Web Services.
"In Q2, we agreed to expand our partnership with AWS to include the co-development of multigenerational data center solutions optimized for AWS infrastructure and Intel as a strategic customer for internal workloads including EDA," said Gelsinger.
Intel's wording about its expanded partnership with AWS is vague at best. The company did not say what exactly it plans to co-develop with the cloud giant. However, given the fact that Intel's main prowess is chip development, we could speculate that Intel is talking about datacenter-grade x86 system-on-chips (SoCs) or multi-chiplet/multi-tile system-in-packages (SiPs)
Intel's intention to build highly-custom datacenter-grade x86 processors for large clients like AWS or Meta has always been one of the critical parts of its IDM 2.0 strategy. AWS is perhaps a perfect client for Intel and its foundry division. AWS consumes loads of chips, can take advantage of almost every IP that Intel has to offer, can bring properly developed in-house IP explicitly designed for AWS-enabled services and platforms like Netflix, and is willing to pay significant sums for the hardware it needs.
Strategically, AWS's sticking with x86 means that the company will continue to use this architecture in the foreseeable future. Of course, AWS is a company that uses all available platforms, including AMD, Nvidia as well as Arm (e.g., Ampere Altra/Altra Max-based platforms). Still, custom Xeons, of course, indicate that AWS is very serious about tailored x86-based solutions.