AMD had an EPYC 2017

2017 was the year that AMD made processors exciting again.

Video: AMD vs Intel: Are you in the market for a new desktop processor?

This is normally the time of year when I focus on how, over the past twelve months, Apple changed the face of technology for year another year.

But not this year.

2017 belonged to AMD.

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I remember a time when a few megahertz increase in processor clock speed made tech folks giddy with excitement. But as megahertz gave way to gigahertz, and the focus shifted from clock speed to cores, and workloads failed to keep up with the power that the silicon could deliver, the processor market became dull, especially as the real-world performance differences between the older and newer generation processors became harder to notice.

Processors became boring. And that's how I expected things to stay.

Until this year.

AMD began the year in a strong way. Over 2016 its stock price had increased by around 300 percent, making it one of the highest-performing tech stocks of that year. It has also spent that year gaining ground in both the graphics and PC markets, expending its semi-custom business, and making big strides into the data centers the world over.

But AMD hasn't been sitting still, and has scored win after win over the past twelve months, starting with Ryzen.

Launched in March, Ryzen was AMD's answer to the call for more affordable multi-core processors for the desktop market. Starting with the high- and mid-range Ryzen 7 and Ryzen 5, followed quickly by the budget Ryzen 3, AMD upended the entire market, and left its rival, Intel, scrabbling for a response.

To say that I've been impressed with Ryzen is an understatement. The price/performance points that these processors hit is simply amazing. With prices ranging from around $110 for the 4-core Ryzen 3 1200, all the way to $350 for the 8-core Ryzen 7 1800X, there's a processor that suits pretty much 95 percent of desktop buyers are a fraction of what a corresponding Intel processor would cost.

And for those people who are no longer interested in desktops, AMD also unveiled new Ryzen chips for premium 2-in-1s, convertibles, and ultrathin notebook computers, processors which it claims are the world's fastest CPUs for these devices.

But what about that 5 percent who want more? For those there's Threadripper.

Threadripper is AMD's answer to Intel's Core i9 chips, at a fraction of the price of the Core i9 branded silicon. While Intel's Core i9-7980XE 18-core behemoth will lighten your wallet by a cool $2,000, the 16-core Threadripper 1950X is "only" $900. This might seem like a niche price point, but if there's a market for $2,000 silicon, a market exists for $900 silicon too. There are plenty of professionals and gamers to support this market.

And AMD has priced its high-end Threadripper such that Intel has nothing that competes against it -- the 10-core i9-7900X has a price tag that's $70 heavier, while the i7-7820X comes in at $500, but only has eight cores and is limited to only 28 PCIe lanes, a processor that's easily kept at bay by the $549 8-core Threadripper 1900X.

Expensive processors aren't for everybody, but if you've got workloads that benefit from having access to an abundance of cores, this year AMD injected some much-needed competition into that sector.

AMD also had a good year with regards to graphics, shaking up the market with the Radeon RX Vega GPUs, and finally offering up some competition to Nvidia's 10-series graphics cards. Again, AMD is injecting some much-needed competition into a market that has otherwise felt stagnant for some time.

But without a doubt, the biggest win for AMD this year has been the company's dramatic renewed push into the server market with EPYC.

With the new EPYC platform, AMD seems to be laser-focused on delivering four things that it believes are lacking in the server market -- flexible configurations, an open ecosystem, platforms that are optimized for modern workflows, and lowering total cost of ownership.

One aspect that seems to be piquing interest with EPYC the most is that it will offer what AMD calls "the industry's first no-compromise one-socket solutions." What this means is that enterprise customers will no longer be funneled into buying unnecessary two-socket servers because of arbitrary and artificial limitations on memory bandwidth and I/O.

Prior to EPYC, if you were looking for a fully-featured, high-performance server in a single-socket configuration, you were out of luck. But EPYC changed that. EPYC is a big deal.

EPYC is a game changer.

Whether you're spending $400 or $4,000, EPYC is wiping the floor with the Intel Xeon chips, even when factoring in the new Intel Skylake chips on the two-socket front. And on the single-socket front, because AMD chose to not constrain performance or I/O on single-socket systems, AMD pretty much owns this server space right now. And EPYC is already scoring big wins from big cloud players such as Baidu and Microsoft.

I spoke at length earlier this month with AMD's Forrest Norrod, SVP and general manager of the Enterprise, Embedded, and Semi-Custom ("EESC") group, and it's clear that AMD both knows where it went wrong with the server market in the past. The company is committed to its "no compromise" single- and dual-socket server systems, systems with no arbitrary limitations set on I/O, or memory bandwidth and performance as it sees this as the way to allow customers to make a no-compromise choice for underutilized servers, and benefit from lower power consumption and lower capital expenditure.

Having AMD re-enter the server market in such a big and meaningful way, and swinging punches again, is good for enterprise, especially the big names in the cloud business. Competition drives down costs, and AMD will be seen as a much-needed counter-pressure to what has become a market dominated by Intel and Nvidia.

Across the board, from Ryzen in desktops to EPYC (the new branding for the silicon that was previously code-named Naples) in the datacenter and to Radeon Vega in workstations, AMD is delivering products that the people on the ground seemed to have been craving. Desktop users I've spoken with who have shifted to Ryzen are loving the performance and flexibility -- as well as price -- of AMD's new chips, while enterprise customers are eyeing with great interest what performance benefits and cost savings the EPYC platform will bring.

Thanks for making processors exciting again, AMD!

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