Are AMD CPUs Finally Back in the Workstation Game?

26 Oct, 2017 By: Alex Herrera

Herrera on Hardware: After a rise and fall a decade ago, AMD now looks to Zen as the means to get back into the workstation CPU business. Will the company be successful and put the pressure on Intel? It’s looking that way, but the deal’s not done.


Ryzen 7/Pro or Threadripper Suited to Bulk of CAD Users

Although AMD now has CPU products to entertain all tiers, remember that the distribution of volume across tiers varies dramatically across the spectrum of possible CAD workstation buyers. The vast majority purchase 1S machines, and of those, far more opt for the most economical Entry 1S models, such as HP’s Z200 series, Dell’s Precision 300 series, and Lenovo’s ThinkStation P300 line. So for practical purposes, Ryzen 7, Ryzen Pro, or possibly Threadripper are the CPUs CAD pros are most likely to hypothetically consider versus the long-default choice of Intel Core i7 and Xeon.

2S systems represent the ultimate in performance, but 1S machines dominate the market for CAD workstations. Data courtesy of Jon Peddie Research.

Zen Has Not Yet Cracked Tier 1

By this point, the reader has probably noticed this column is littered with qualifiers like “potentially” and “hopefully” when describing the prospect of considering AMD alternatives to Intel in a new CAD workstation. And for good reason: Despite the availability of viable AMD CPUs for workstations, very few AMD-equipped workstations are available for purchase today. As of this writing, none of the top-tier, high-volume vendors — which for all intents and purposes equates to the trio of Dell, HP, and Lenovo — has taken the plunge on Zen for workstations.

A few Zen-based workstations have emerged, as smaller vendors like Maingear, Boxx, and Velocity have introduced workstations based primarily on Threadripper, with a secondary interest in Ryzen. Bringing on board early-adopting vendors like these three represents a valuable stepping stone for AMD to build momentum for Zen, but ultimately those aren’t the three OEMs AMD covets.

Signing on Dell, HP, or Lenovo, however, is a different marketing ballgame, as those market-dominating vendors have very important fundamental differences in goals and operating principles. Nimble vendors like Boxx can search out market opportunities generation to generation, even if that may not sustain momentum long term. To gain that edge, they’re willing to take on some level of risk about the competitive longevity of both the supplier and its products.

By contrast, taking a risk and having faith aren’t what Tier 1 vendors like HP, Dell, and Lenovo are interested in; they prefer a sure thing. While all three place importance on competitive specifications, maximum performance is not a goal that overrides all others. A high-volume supplier needs the confidence that a supplier like AMD will have products that are competitive not for just one or two workstation product cycles, but for many years and cycles to come. OEMs Dell and HP will likely remember quite well that up-then-all-the-way-down chart of Opteron of the mid-‘00s, and that’s a memory that won’t help lock up sockets for Zen.

So yes, Zen-generation CPUs will let AMD compete again in workstations, but they represent the ante, not necessarily the winning hand. To succeed, AMD must convince OEMs they will be able to compete and invest in the market not for just one generation, but for many to come. Do that, and CAD professionals will find a more vibrant competitive market for the workstations they need, and I’ll once again be talking about AMD as a formidable vendor of workstation-caliber CPUs for years to come. Don’t, and the history of Zen CPUs in workstations will simply replay Opteron’s of a decade ago, and Zen will remain the domain of second-tier OEMs and system integrators.

1 2 3 

About the Author: Alex Herrera

Alex Herrera

Add comment


Re: Are AMD CPUs Finally Back in the Workstation Game?
by: roadkill
October 28, 2017 - 4:34pm
I have just finished a report on nvidea stomping on server makers swapping retail gpus for pro gpuS. Perhaps you underestimate price sensitivity in the allegedly "money no object" cad world? You omit a fundamental imo - the certain synergies between zen & vega. amd make the whole solution, not half each like nvidea and intel. Especially exciting areas for serious cad imho are the parallel features of vega hbcc AND native amd raid nvme. Together they amount to ~unlimited, or at least greatly extended, gpu memory/address space. 4x 256GB evo nvme SSD @$US~140 ea.& an asus 4x nvme 16 lane adaptor ~$US225 yields a 1TB raid 0 array w/ ~12.5GB/s SeqRead & 8GB/s S write for big chunks of data like page swapping. Vega hbcc can combine this resource with spare system memory and the gpu ram as a cache pool, and intelligently manage them to simulate larger installed gpu memory. The largest gpu is currently 32GB & I bet it aint cheap. Such gpu ram cache constrained apps are quite common I hear. I would think TR a sweetspot for cad stations. 64 lanes suffices for 2x 16 lane GPU & & 28 lanes free after the 4 lane chipset. If that's sufficient, why endure the extra latency of 2 more zeppelin die of epyc. If you wanna get wild about the raid memory extender idea above, and go to 7x nvme in a raid array, it scales well so that's fine, but you need the extra lanes of epyc. imo, the epyc shortage is not supply, its demand. There are no production problems. They are just stretched versions of well proven ryzen. I think just the pilot epyc/vega stuff they are doing with the big cloud providers is accounting for them ~all. Its a more important market and easier/profitable for ~minnow amd to market to. similar in vega, only more so i suspect as they have workarounds to large gobs of scarce hbm2 on each gpu. Less hbm per gpu = more gpuS sold.
More News and Resources from Cadalyst Partners

For Mold Designers! Cadalyst has an area of our site focused on technologies and resources specific to the mold design professional. Sponsored by Siemens NX.  Visit the Equipped Mold Designer here!

For Architects! Cadalyst has an area of our site focused on technologies and resources specific to the building design professional. Sponsored by HP.  Visit the Equipped Architect here!