September 22, 2023
The Workstation Processor Triumvirate — Intel, Nvidia, and AMD — All Deliver Major Advances in CAD Hardware
Herrera on Hardware: The computing foundation for CAD — CPUs and GPUs — has seen a complete refresh across the board, from the three major silicon suppliers.
There was a point in time in the history of workstation computing, when the list of core silicon processor vendors was a long one. Back in the 90’s, the names were many, including the workstation vendors themselves who engineered their own CPUs and GPUs. But that’s not the case any longer, as for all intents and purposes, the list is down to just three: Intel, Nvidia and AMD. Virtually every CPU and GPU shipping in a CAD workstation today comes from one of these vendors. While supporting subsystems, like memory and storage, have to provide commensurate capabilities, how fast your machine cranks through your design, simulation, and visualization tasks depends on the horsepower those CPUs and GPUs can muster.
None of the three stand still for too long, periodically upgrading their processor wares to entice professional users to replace their current systems — or perhaps upgrade a graphics card – with the promise of a worthwhile gain in productivity. Sometimes those technology upgrades come from relatively minor tweaks, and other times from a ground-up architectural overhaul. In some cases, vendor’s releases are staggered, and other instances timed to allow an OEM to refresh both key components at the same time.
This year, the industry has witnessed one of the broadest and deepest refreshes ever, from all three vendors across all workstation-focused product lines, and all delivered in close succession. Those introductions have been rippling through OEMs workstation models in the last few months, now offering CAD users one of the more compelling opportunities to dial up their workflow throughput in years.
The Xeon W-2400: Intel’s Long — Emphasize Long — Awaited Successor to the Xeon W line
First up is Intel, which despite AMD’s obvious advances in technology, performance, and market share in PC and server markets, remains the dominant CPU supplier for workstations serving CAD markets. While AMD has successfully nibbled on Intel’s share in workstations with its Threadripper Pro and Ryzen Pro lines — both of which have earned Tier 1 OEM support — Intel retains overwhelming share today. Notably, it’s managed to do so despite uncharacteristic stumbles in execution and lagging refresh cycles.
This year, Intel has finally bolstered not one but its entire trio of workstation-focused CPU lines: Core at the entry level, Xeon W at the mid-range and above, and Xeon Scalable at the dual-socket top end. Now, of those three, Core was the company’s lesser issue. Yes, Core lost some competitiveness earlier this decade, due in part to Intel’s acknowledged struggles with advanced manufacturing processes. But Intel was quicker to right that ship, and its 12th and 13th Generation Core (Alder Lake and Raptor Lake, the former’s impressive technological advances covered here) have stemmed the tide and re-established Core as the CPU-to-beat at the entry level. At the top-end, the dual-socket capable Xeon Scalable had stagnated, but with the dual-socket workstation segment shrinking, now representing an increasingly small market niche, any loss in Xeon Scalable competitive edge would barely show up in Intel’s workstation CPU volume.
Rather, Intel’s glaring competitive hole in its workstation CPU portfolio has been Xeon W, the line serving the premium mid-range fixed segment of the market. Entering 2023, the Xeon W-2200 product generation was still anchoring Tier 1 (Dell/HP/Lenovo) OEMs’ premium workstation models, nearly four years after launch. (There had been one intermediate refresh, but for several reasons was not picked up at the Tier 1 level). Fortunately, the emergence of the Sapphire Rapids generation of Xeon (covered in depth here) has remedied that situation in a big way.
Garnering more of the Sapphire Rapids launch limelight earlier this year was the Xeon W-3400 line, offering core counts up to 56 to offer a much-needed, credible competitor to AMD’s up-to-64C Threadripper Pro 5900WX line that has been gaining ground at the top end of the single-socket (1S) workstation market. But limelight doesn’t necessarily correlate with market impact, as more often it’s the lesser-touted but mainstream priced products that yield the bulk of the eventual revenue stream. Such is the case with Sapphire Rapids.
Yes, the Xeon W-3400’s jump in available core counts was a critical step to answer AMD’s Threadripper Pro in the very top end of the workstation market, but it’s the W-2400 that anchors the valuable mid-range, sandwiched between the Core offerings below and the more expensive W-3400 above. More importantly, it’s put an end to the long 4-year pause in technology updates for that key segment. How convincing an end? Benchmarking with SPECworkstation indicates a dramatic upgrade in performance a CAD user can expect moving from the previous generation W-2200 up to the W-2400. Comparing the top-end Xeon W-2495X with the previous flagship W-2265, we find an average 115% improvement in throughput for a wide selection of SPECworkstation tests (version 3.0.4. for historical consistency).