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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  • mode_13h - Thursday, October 7, 2021 - link

    > x86 still commands 99% of the server market.

    Depends on what you consider the "server market", but AWS is very rapidly switching over. Others will follow.

    Lots of cloud compute just depends on density and power-efficiency. And here's where ARM has a real advantage.
  • Wilco1 - Thursday, October 7, 2021 - link

    According to Arm server revenue has been 4-5% over the last few quarters.
  • schujj07 - Friday, October 8, 2021 - link

    Anything under 10% market share in the server world is basically considered a niche player. Right now AMD is over 10% so they are finally seen as an actual player in the market.
  • Spunjji - Friday, October 8, 2021 - link

    Pointing at current market share that resulted from a lack of viable ARM competition isn't a great argument for your prediction that ARM will not gain market share, especially when you're being presented with evidence of viable ARM competition.
  • mode_13h - Thursday, October 7, 2021 - link

    > Before AMD can disrupt Intel in the server,

    *before* ? This is already happening! You can clearly see it in AMD's server marketshare, as well as the price structure of Ice Lake.

    > And now Intel is coming back with Saphire Rapids. Doesn't look good for AMD.

    AMD has Genoa, V-Cache, and who knows what else in the pipeline. Oh, and they can also build an ARM core just as good as anyone (with the possible exceptions of Apple and Nuvia/Qualcomm).
  • yetanotherhuman - Friday, October 8, 2021 - link

    Not even in slight agreement. Different architecture.
  • eastcoast_pete - Thursday, October 7, 2021 - link

    Thanks Andrei, great analysis! IMO, the biggest problem Ampere and other firms that develop server CPUs based on ARM designs is that their natural customers - large, cloud-type providers - pretty much all have their own, in-house designed ARM-based CPUs, and won't buy thousands of third party CPUs unless they do something their own can't do, or nowhere near as well. AWS, Google, MS, and Apple still buy x86 CPUs from Intel or AMD because there is a customer demand for those instances, but also try to shift as much as they can to their own, home-grown ARM server systems. In this regard, has anyone heard any updates about the ARM designs supposedly in development at MS? Maybe Ampere can get themselves bought out by them?
  • name99 - Friday, October 8, 2021 - link

    “own house-designed ARM-based CPU’s”?
    We obviously have Graviton. Apple seem a reasonable bet at some point. Maybe a large Chinese player.

    Do we have any evidence (as opposed to hypotheses and rumors) of Google, Facebook, Microsoft, or most of China? Or other smaller but still large players like Yandex or Cloudflare?
  • Sivar - Thursday, October 7, 2021 - link

    This is a proper old-school deep CPU review.
  • vegemeister - Thursday, October 7, 2021 - link

    Text says Intel Xeon 8380 is running at 205 W power limit, but the table says 270 W. Which is it? I assume 270 W like ARK says?

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