When Intel launched Cascade Lake, it heavily segmented the CPU family depending on its various features. This isn’t a new strategy for Intel; the company has long broken its various enterprise capabilities into price bands where certain features cost substantially more money. Today, Intel announced that it’s making several changes to the Cascade Lake Xeon family, likely to better compete against AMD’s Epyc.
Under the old Xeon lineup, Intel sold Cascade Lake Xeons in three buckets depending on memory capacity. Standard models support 1TB of RAM, M-series chips offered support for 2TB, and the L-series processors offered 4.5TB of RAM. These capabilities came with a significant cost adder; the M-series cost an extra $3,003 and the L-series was an additional $7,897. Using 4.5TB of memory on a Cascade Lake Xeon required the use of Optane DIMMs in conjunction with standard DRAM. According to Tom’s Hardware, the M-series has now been entirely canceled, and the L-series now offers 4.5TB of RAM at the M-series original pricing.
The net effect of these changes is to make high-memory Xeons far more affordable relative to AMD’s Epyc processors, all of which offer 4TB of memory support. It also increases the chances that more customers will adopt Optane. Previously, if you wanted to hit the maximum capacity (4.5TB) on an L-class chip, you had to pay several premiums — the base $7,897 premium for the CPU, followed by the price of the Optane DIMMs themselves.
According to Intel’s list prices, released in April, 128GB of Optane in a DRAM form factor should cost $577, 256GB should cost $2,125, and 512GB should cost $6,751. You need 512GB DIMMs to fill a 4.5TB Xeon server to capacity. 512GB of registered server memory (4x128GB, DDR4-2933) currently sells for ~$4,500 on Newegg, but you have to use four RAM slots to hit the same capacity. The problem is, I can’t actually find any stores selling Optane DIMMs at Intel prices. Of the listed sources with Optane to sell back in April.
I had no problem finding plenty of Optane drives in other form factors at reasonable prices. Given that Intel’s listed CPU prices only apply to retail, I have no problem believing that OEMs are paying prices that are a fraction of what’s actually listed for-sale at retail. Assuming the actual costs are closer to Intel’s list prices, it’s clear that knocking nearly $5,000 off the CPU price could free up a little cash for Optane spending, especially since Intel is actively trying to promote the memory.
As for why Intel is taking this step, it’s because of AMD’s Epyc. Rome may have only built volume slowly from 2017 – 2019, but now that AMD has demonstrated the ability to execute multiple product generations we’re going to see more vendor interest. Intel’s price trimming here reflects AMD’s increased competitiveness. Intel has focused hard on driving data center revenue over the past five years and they aren’t going to want to give up any of that market to AMD (or ARM, for that matter) without a fight.