It’s been a little over a year since Ampere started to deliver their first generation Altra processors. The “Quicksilver” design with 80 Neoverse N1 cores was the first merchant Arm silicon on the market who really went “all-out” in terms of performance targets, aiming for the best of what AMD and Intel had to offer, ending up in a very competitive standing against the newest EPYC CPUs and leapfrogging Intel’s offerings.

Since that first review, the competition has released two new generation platforms, the newer EPYC Milan chips, showcasing a good generational boost, and Intel dramatically narrowing the performance gap with the new Ice Lake-SP Xeon parts.

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For the Arm ecosystem and Ampere in particular, things naturally also aren’t standing still; following the first-gen 80-core Quicksilver design, we had long expected the 128-core “Mystique” Altra Max design. Arguably a bit late compared to Ampere’s initial Q4 2020 projections, we’ve now finally had our hands on the new many-core monster for today’s initial review.

Pushing it to 128 Cores

The new Altra Max is a quite exciting part, but it’s also relatively straightforward design compared to the original Altra parts. While the original chip had been pushing 80 Neoverse-N1 cores, the new Altra Max is pushing 128 cores. While there are also slightly improved technical differences between the two chip generations, that is mostly the main large differentiation between the two designs.

Ampere is still continuing to offer both Altra and Altra Max chips in their product line-up, with the Max parts in particular filling the high-core count SKU segment:

Ampere Altra SKU List
AnandTech Cores Frequency TDP PCIe DDR4 Price
Altra 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
M112-30 112 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
Altra "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
Q32-17 32 1.7 GHz 45 W 128x G4 8 x 3200 $800

The unit we’re testing today, the flagship Altra Max M128-30, with 128 cores and a 3.0GHz clock (again, noteworthy congratulations of Ampere’s straightforward and descriptive part naming), with a maximum TDP of 250W.

Much like the first-generation parts, platform side features are all identical throughout the product stack, always featuring the maximum 128 lanes of PCIe 4.0 and 8-channel DDR4-3200 capabilities.

Comparing the M128-30 to the Q80-33, the new Altra Max part is able to fit in 60% more cores, albeit at 10% lower frequency, within the same advertised TDP. It’s to be noted that TDP here doesn’t mean power consumption, and in our initial review of the Q80-33 we noted that the chip in many workloads hovered at power levels much below the TDP, possibly explaining why and Ampere was able to grow the core count this much even though the chip isn’t on a fundamentally different process node (TSMC N7), though it’s on a better implementation.

The SKU list for the new Altra Max parts is interesting in that there’s only parts from 96 cores onwards, with anything below that still being serviced by the original Altra SKUs. It’s very likely that due to the process node maturity of the N7 node that Ampere here likely has few chips yielding with fewer cores, and the higher clocks and larger cache of the Quicksilver chips would be better served for lower core count deployments anyhow.

In terms of pricing, Ampere is quite aggressive, vastly undercutting both AMD and Intel’s flagship parts MSRPs, though as always, what large customers and hyperscalers pay are most of the time never in line with those prices anyhow – but it’s still a large win for Ampere in terms of visible pricing.

The Altra Max is extremely straightforward in terms of deployment: following some initial required firmware updates, it’s essentially a drop-in solution on the existing Altra platforms, which is exactly what we did for our review, re-using the original Mount Jade reference server from Wiwynn. The only practical note to make here is that at time of writing, Ampere currently doesn’t have a dual capable firmware stack that would enable swapping around from Altra to Altra Max and vice-versa, our initial setup was a one-way upgrade, with interoperability firmware still being something in the works for the future.

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  • Wilco1 - Sunday, October 10, 2021 - link

    > You need only note the cases where Max significantly underperforms, relative to its 80-core sibling, to see where the cache reduction is likely an issue.

    There are regressions in 4 of the 10 integer benchmarks - only mcf is significant. However if you look closely, Altra Max still beats/equals the 8380 in 3 out of those 4. Clearly a 40MB L3 is not large enough for these benchmarks, so would you also call that a "major liability"? EPYC beats all by a huge margin in these 4, so clearly 256MB L3 works well, but it's also way too expensive for a monolithic die.

    > The reason why there are so many different benchmarks is that you can't just seize on the aggregate numbers to tell the whole story.

    No. The aggregate result averages out the extremes and is a better prediction for average performance. For example Altra Max is slower than Altra on gcc_r and far behind EPYC. However in LLVM compilation Altra Max beats Altra by ~20% and is pretty much equal to the 7763. So in real world tests EPYC's huge caches don't help nearly as much as the gcc_r subtest suggests.
  • mode_13h - Sunday, October 10, 2021 - link

    > There are regressions in 4 of the 10 integer benchmarks - only mcf is significant.

    When you have 45% more core x GHz, *any* regression is significant! By that token, we should also be marking the xz test as underperforming, since it's only a ~20% improvement.

    It's also convenient to seize on specint, when it suffers regressions on 7 of the 12 specfp tests.

    > Altra Max still beats/equals the 8380 in 3 out of those 4.
    > Clearly a 40MB L3 is not large enough for these benchmarks,
    > so would you also call that a "major liability"?

    This seems like a rather disingenuous point. To say anything about the 8380's cache, we'd need to see a comparison against other Ice Lake CPUs with a different core-to-cache ratio.

    > No. The aggregate result averages out the extremes and is a better
    > prediction for average performance.

    It's a flawed inference to conclude that "the average workload" will match an unweighted average of a set of intentionally disparate workloads.

    Furthermore, people less & less buy hardware for "the average workload".

    > in LLVM compilation Altra Max beats Altra by ~20% and is pretty much equal to the 7763.

    You can't just cherry-pick the best results of each memory configuration. If you're going to deal in aggregates, then you need to aggregate the results per-configuration.

    > So in real world tests EPYC's huge caches don't help nearly as much as the gcc_r subtest suggests.

    As a matter of fact, the monolithic vs. quadrant results would argue the opposite, in your chosen example of LLVM. Furthermore, what qualifies LLVM compilation as more "real world" than the gcc test?
  • schujj07 - Monday, October 11, 2021 - link

    "The Altra Max wins the more useful critical-jOPS benchmark by over 30%"
    What are you talking about? In both critical-jOPS & max-jOPS the 2s 7763 is on the top of the chart. We cannot try to extrapolate possible performance on the Altra Max due to "Unfortunately, trading in one issue with another, we ran into other issues on the 2-socket test scenario where the test ran into issues at large thread counts. The 2S Q80-33 figures here only stresses 130 cores, while I wasn’t able at all to get 2S M128-30 figures at reasonable core counts, so I completely omitted results here."

    Per-core performance matters a lot. There are A LOT of programs, especially databases, that are licensed on a per core metric. This means I need 8 cores of Altra Max to equal the performance I get from an Epyc 4c that will kill my licensing cost. Those added cores could easily double the license cost and those license are often times MUCH more expensive than the server itself. It is obvious you don't work in industry as this is common knowledge.

    Overall the Altra Max is interesting but nothing more than that. It won't be a player in industry until the per core performance is at least double what it currently is and there is enterprise software able to take advantage of it. Basically Altra Max is like IBM Power and that is niche at best.
  • Wilco1 - Tuesday, October 12, 2021 - link

    Altra Max is still at the top for 1S critical-jOPS - that's not invalidated by missing 2S results.

    If you worked in the industry, you would know that per-core licenses have a multiplier based on CPU type to level out performance differences. In cases where per-core performance really matters and you completely disable SMT (for example for high-frequency trading), you would not consider these many-core servers at all but get 8 or 16 core CPUs with significantly higher bandwidth, cache and power per core.

    It seems you misunderstand the target market completely. You probably also call Graviton 2 a niche eventhough it is already a significant percentage of AWS and growing fast. And that with just 64 cores and far lower per-core performance than Altra...
  • schujj07 - Tuesday, October 12, 2021 - link

    How about we do some math instead. Compared to the 1S 80 core, the 1S Max gets 42% better performance, THP disabled, or 30% better performance THP enabled for 60% more cores in your beloved critical-jOPS. Compare that to the Epyc 7763 which gets 105% better THP disabled and 102% THP enabled. Even the older 80C only adds 62% despite doubling its cores. Based on that alone best case scenario is the 2S Altra Max ties the Epyc 2S in critical-jOPS. Sure it is beating the 1S 7763 but it barely beats the 2S 7443 a 24c/48t CPU.

    I do work in industry as a VMware Admin. Unless you are running Oracle, most of these will be run on systems up to 32c/64t to max out your VMware license. If you have specific needs you can get the higher frequency parts that also are up to 32c AMD or 28c Intel. The difference in costs for Windows DataCenter for the core additional core licenses is saved by reducing the number of physical hosts. What software has "per-core licenses have a multiplier based on CPU type to level out performance differences?" That sounds like they are going to charge your X for Xeon Scalable Gen 1 but Y for Gen 2 and Z for AMD. That doesn't happen. MS SQL Server charges per core with a base license of 4 cores. Now if I need 8 cores on the Altra Max to equal the performance of an Epyc at 4 cores I have doubled my license cost.

    Overall ARM with under 10% total market share IS a niche player. They need to get to the same per core performance & have software available for it to be an actual alternative. Until that happens companies will play around with it but nothing serious in the data center environment.
  • mode_13h - Tuesday, October 12, 2021 - link

    > You probably also call Graviton 2 a niche

    Don't put words in people's mouths. If you want to know whether @schujj07 considers it a niche, you can certainly ask.
  • Kangal - Thursday, October 7, 2021 - link

    This is basically a 3GHz Cortex-A76 (Neoverse N1), running in a 128-core tandem, and built with a more efficient/expensive Monolithic Socket based on TSMC's 7nm node. Sounds neat.

    I enjoyed seeing the older generation which was basically a 2GHz Cortex-A73, running in 64-core tandem, and built on TSMC's 16nm node. Was quiet value-for-money, at least in its time.

    Seems like this new version is giving Intel's Core-i, decent competition in the single-threaded work. Since Intel is having some issues with their own node, and can't clock too high. Whilst AMD has a clear advantage here. When it comes to total/multi-threaded performance, ARM wins through sheer grunt of all those extra cores. Overall, it is a competitive choice for today and the next few years.

    What will be interesting is when they bump it up to the Cortex-A78 (Neoverse V1) and use something like TSMC's 5nm node which should bring it to full-parity on the single-threaded performance against Intel. Or to the next best thing, ARM v9, using the Cortex-X2 (Neoverse N2) on the same TSMC 5nm node. But I share my previous concerns that the first-generation of (USA) ARM v9 is going to be quiet disappointing, but I'm optimistic about the (European) second-generation. I think then we should see more tangible benefits, when combined with the TSMC 3nm node, which should bring it on parity to AMD's cores on the single-threaded characteristic. Exciting times ahead. And yes, I know I am over-simplifying things here.
  • SarahKerrigan - Thursday, October 7, 2021 - link

    Previous Ampere parts weren't 64-core, 2GHz, or Cortex-A73. They were a custom (and bad) core, 32 per socket, at 3.3GHz.

    Neoverse V1 is based on the Cortex-X1, not the Cortex-A78. Neoverse N2 is based on the Cortex-A710, not the Cortex-X2.
  • Kangal - Friday, October 8, 2021 - link

    Sorry, by "older generation" I was talking about the Amazon Graviton one, not the previous Ampere Version.

    The proper upgrade from the Cortex-A76 is the Cortex-A78.
    The Cortex-A78 is the base micro-architecture, with the Cortex-X1 being a slightly modified derivative of it, and the Neoverse-V1 is a further slightly modified version of that. That's why I worded it in that way. Whilst ARM claims a divergence between the Cortex-A710, Cortex-X2, and Neoverse-N2... I think we will end up seeing them much more closer in-common than different.
  • SarahKerrigan - Friday, October 8, 2021 - link

    The Graviton1 was 16 Cortex-A72 at 2.3GHz.

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