A little less than 2 years ago, we investigated the first Arm server SoC that had a chance to compete with midrange Xeon E5s: the Cavium ThunderX. The SoC showed promise, however the low single-threaded performance and some power management issues relegated the 48-core SoC to more niche markets such as CDN and Web caching. In the end, Cavium's first server SoC was not a real threat to Intel's Xeon.

But Cavium did not give up, and rightfully so: the server market is more attractive than ever. Intel's datacenter group is good for about 20 Billion USD (!) in revenue per year. And even better, profit margins are in 50% range. When you want to profits and cash flow, the server market far outpaces any other hardware market. So following the launch of the ThunderX, Cavium promised to bring out a second iteration: better power management, better single thread performance and even more cores (54).

The trick, of course, is actually getting to a point where you can take on the well-oiled machine that is Intel. Arm, Calxeda, Broadcom, AppliedMicro and many others have made many bold promises over the past 5 years that have never materialized, so there is a great deal of skepticism – and rightfully so – towards new Arm Server SoCs.

However, the new creation of underdog Cavium deserves the benefit of the doubt. Much has changed – much more than the name alone lets on – as Cavium has bought the "Vulcan" design from Avago. Vulcan is a rather ambitious CPU design which was originally designed by the Arm server SoC team of Broadcom, and as a result has a much different heritage than the original ThunderX. At the same time however, based on its experience from the ThunderX, Cavium was able to take what they've learned thus far and have introduced some microarchitectural improvements to the Vulcan design to improve its performance and power.

As a result, ThunderX2 is a much more "brainiac" core than the previous generation. While the ThunderX core had a very short pipeline and could hardly sustain 2 instructions per clock, the Vulcan core was designed to fetch 8 and execute up to 4 instructions per clock. It gets better: 4 simultaneous threads can be active (SMT4), ensuring that the wide back-end is busy most of the time. 32 of those cores at clockspeeds up to 2.5 GHz find a home in the new ThunderX2 SoC.

With up to 128 threads running and no less than eight DDR4 controllers, this CPU should be able to perform well in all server situations. In other words, while the ThunderX (1) was relegated to niche roles, the ThunderX2 is the first Arm server CPU that has a chance to break the server market open.

Sizing Things Up: Specifications Compared
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  • Eris_Floralia - Wednesday, May 23, 2018 - link

    The L2$ for SKX should be 1MB (256+768KiB), 16-way.
  • Ryan Smith - Wednesday, May 23, 2018 - link

    Right you are. Thanks!
  • danjme - Wednesday, May 23, 2018 - link

  • Duncan Macdonald - Wednesday, May 23, 2018 - link

    The CPU may be much cheaper than the equivalent Intel CPU - however on the price of a complete server there would be almost no difference as the vast majority of the price of a server is in other items (RAM, storage, network, software etc). To take a significant share, the performance needs to be better than Intel CPUs on both a per thread and a per socket basis. Potential users will look at this CPU - see that it is not faster than Intel on a per thread basis and is also not X86-64 compatible and turn away with a shrug. A price difference of under 5% for a complete server is not enough to justify the risks of going from x86-64 to ARM.
  • BurntMyBacon - Thursday, May 24, 2018 - link

    Perhaps you are correct and the lack of per thread performance will not allow Cavium to take a "significant' share of the market from Intel. However, at this point, getting even a small amount of market penetration in the server market is a significant achievement for an ARM vendor. This processor doesn't need to take a "significant" share from Intel to be successful. It just needs to establish a solid foothold. Given the data, I think it has a good chance of succeeding in that.

    The bigger question in my mind is how Intel will respond. They already have the ability to make a many lite core accelerator as demonstrated by the Xeon Phi line. Will they bring this tech to their CPU lineup, create a new accelerator based on this tech to handle applications that use many light threads, create a new many small core CPU based on Goldmont Plus (or Tremont), or will they consider the ARM threat insignificant enough to ignore.
  • boeush - Wednesday, May 23, 2018 - link

    "(*) EPYC and Xeon E5 V4 are older results, run on Kernel 4.8 and a slightly older Java 1.8.0_131 instead of 1.8.0_161. Though we expect that the results would be very similar on kernel 4.13 and Java 1.8.0_161"

    What about Spectre/Meltdown mitigation patches? Were they in effect for 'older' results?
  • boeush - Wednesday, May 23, 2018 - link

    To elaborate: if those numbers really are from July 2017, then they don't reflect true performance in a server context any longer (servers are where Spectre/Meltdown patches would be applied most.). Since the performance impact of Spectre/Meltdown is greatest on speculative execution and memory loads/prefetching, I'd guess those super-aggressive memory subsystem performance numbers, as well as single thread IPC advantages that Intel's CPUs claim in your benchmarks, are not really entirely applicable any longer.
  • HStewart - Wednesday, May 23, 2018 - link

    Spectre has been proved to effect other CPU's than Intel and even effects ARM and AMD.,

    Image on this article states that this CPU supports Fully Out of Order execution. So with my understanding of Spectre that this CPU also has issues.

    To be honest I not sure how much the whole Spectre/Meltdown stuff is in this real world. It probably cause more harm in the computer industry than help.
  • Manch - Thursday, May 24, 2018 - link

    Commentor: Blah Blah Blah Spectre?
    HStewart: Shill Shill Shill must defend Intel by any means...
  • lmcd - Thursday, May 24, 2018 - link

    Commentor: reasonable position taken
    Manch: *banned for unreasonable, offensive comments*

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