Pushing it to 128 cores per socket

It’s been just over a year since Ampere began shipping its first generation of Altra processors. The design of the “Quicksilver” with 80 Neoverse N1 cores was the first commercial Arm silicon on the market to really achieve “all in all” in terms of performance goals, aiming for the best of what AMD and Intel could offer, ending up in a very competitive relationship to the latest EPYC processors and skipped Intel’s offering.

Since that first review, the competition has announced two next-generation platforms, the newer EPYC Milan chips, which show good generation gain, and Intel is dramatically reducing the performance gap with the new Ice Lake-SP Xeon parts.

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For the Arm and Ampere ecosystem in particular, things, of course, are also not dormant; following Quicksilver’s first-generation 80-core design, we’ve long awaited the 128-core “Mystique” design of the Altra Max. Probably a little late compared to Ampera’s initial projections for the fourth quarter of 2020, we have now finally picked up a new multi-core monster for today’s initial review.

Pushing it to 128 cores

The new Altra Max is a pretty exciting part, but it’s also a relatively simple design compared to the original Altra parts. While the original chip supplanted 80 Neoverse-N1 cores, the new Altra Max is pushing 128 cores. Although there are also slightly improved technical differences between the two generations of chips, this is mostly the main big difference between the two designs.

Ampere continues to offer both Altra and Altra Max chips in its product line, and Max parts specifically meet the SKU segment with a large number of cores:

Ampere Altra SKU list
AnandTech The core Frequency TDP PCIe DDR4 Price
Other Max “Mystique”
128 3.0 GHz 250 W 128x G4 8 x 3200 $ 5800
M128-28 128 2.8 GHz 230 W 128x G4 8 x 3200 $ 5500
M128-26 128 2.6 GHz 190 W 128x G4 8 x 3200 $ 5400
M112-30 96 3.0 GHz 240 W 128x G4 8 x 3200 $ 5100
M96-30 96 3.0 GHz 220 W 128x G4 8 x 3200 $ 4550
M96-28 96 2.8 GHz 190 W 128x G4 8 x 3200 $ 4250
Other “Quicksilver”
80 3.3 GHz 250 W 128x G4 8 x 3200 $ 4050
Q80-30 80 3.0 GHz 210 W 128x G4 8 x 3200 $ 3950
Q80-26 80 2.6 GHz 175 W 128x G4 8 x 3200 $ 3810
Q72-30 72 3.0 GHz 195 W 128x G4 8 x 3200 $ 3590
Q64-33 64 3.3 GHz 220 W 128x G4 8 x 3200 $ 3810
Q64-30 64 3.0 GHz 180 W 128x G4 8 x 3200 $ 3480
Q64-26 64 2.6 GHz 125 W 128x G4 8 x 3200 $ 3260
Q64-24 64 2.4 GHz 95 W 128x G4 8 x 3200 3090 USD
Q32-17 32 1.7 GHz 45 W 128x G4 8 x 3200 $ 800

The unit we test today, the flagship Altra Max M128-30, with 128 cores and a clock speed of 3.0 GHz (again, congratulations to Ampere’s simple and descriptive naming of parts), with a maximum TDP of 250 W.

Similar to first-generation parts, the platform’s side features are identical across the product range, always featuring a maximum of 128 PCIe 4.0 lanes and 8-channel DDR4-3200 capabilities.

Compared to the M128-30 with the Q80-33, the new part of the Altra Max can fit in 60% more cores, albeit at a 10% lower frequency, within the same advertised TDP. It should be noted that TDP does not mean power consumption here, and in our initial review of the Q80-33 we noticed that the chip hovered at power levels well below the TDP in many workloads, probably explaining why the Ampere managed to grow the core counts as much as the chip it is not on a substantially different process node (TSMC N7), although it is in better implementation.

The SKU list for the new Altra Max parts is interesting in that there are only parts from 96 cores onwards, and everything below that is still being serviced from the original Altra SKUs. It is very likely that due to the maturity of the process node of the N7 Ampere node, it would probably have few chips here that would yield fewer cores, and higher clock speeds and larger cache of Quicksilver chips would in any case serve better for implementations with fewer cores.

In terms of pricing, Ampere is quite aggressive, greatly undermining both AMD’s and Intel’s leading MSRPs for parts, although as always what big customers and hyperscalers pay is generally never in line with those prices – but it’s still a big win for Ampere in terms of visible prices.

Altra Max is extremely simple in terms of implementation: after some initial firmware updates required, it’s basically a solution for embedding on existing Altra platforms, which we just did for our review, again using the original Mount Jade reference server from Wiwynn. The only practical note to note here is that at the time of writing this Ampera currently lacks a double-capable bunch of firmware that would allow replacement from Altra to Altra Max and vice versa, our initial setup was a one-way upgrade, with interoperable firmware still on what is being done in the future.

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Naveen Kumar

Friendly communicator. Music maven. Explorer. Pop culture trailblazer. Social media practitioner.

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