Intel Internal Memo Details Fiercest Challenges Versus AMD In Over A Decade

Intel Engineer
When AMD announced its 7nm Zen 2-based Ryzen 3000 processors at Computex, the enthusiast community stood up and took notice. Later, when AMD capped off the new processor family with the bodacious and powerful 16-core/32-thread Ryzen 9 3950X, it absolutely rocked the desktop PC community. However, it appears computing enthusiasts weren’t the only ones that were impressed with AMD’s third-generation Ryzen and EPYC Zen 2-based products. Wall Street also took notice, and AMD's progress definitely got the attention of its primary rival competitor, Intel.

Nowhere is Intel's renewed keen focus more evident than in an internal Intel memo that just leaked out to public venues. The memo was originally posted on Intel’s internal “Circuit News” employee portal and it's quite revealing. It was then apparently re-posted to reddit, where it is now being discovered by the rest of the world. The memo, which is entitled, "AMD competitive profile: Where we go toe-to-toe, why they are resurgent, which chips of ours beat theirs", is a surprisingly frank look at how AMD has managed to get the best of Intel, at least currently, and how the company should manage and battle this renewed or "resurgent" competitive threat.

intel ice lake
Intel's 10nm Ice Lake

What’s most surprising about the memo, which was penned by Circuit News Managing Editor Walden Kirsch, is how flattering it is in general to AMD. It starts off talking about how AMD’s stock has rallied over the past year, pointing out that it was the best-performing stock on the S&P 500 for 2018.

It goes on to point out some of the things that members of the press have been highlighting at for quite some time. AMD is hammering away at Intel hard in two of its core segments in the computing arena: client desktop and the datacenter processors. Intel acknowledged that AMD's new Ryzen 3000 processors will be a formidable force when launched on July 7th, and even admits that multi-core performance will be a strong point for the new CPUs.

Intel internal memo regarding AMD
Excerpt from internal Intel memo - via reddit

“Intel 9th Gen Core processors are likely to lead AMD's Ryzen-based products on lightly threaded productivity benchmarks as well as many gaming benchmarks,” Kirsch writes in the memo. “For multi-threaded workloads, such as heavy content creation workloads, AMD's Matisse is expected to lead.”

AMD 3rd Gen Ryzen architecture deep dive chip

Intel is particularly interested in focusing on single-core performance now that AMD is crushing it with respect core counts with its 12-core Ryzen 9 3900X and the 16-core 3950X. We got a preview of this train of thought earlier this month when Intel VP Jon Carvill took issue with AMD’s insistence on touting Cinebench numbers, exclaiming, "I challenge you to challenge anyone that wants to compete for this crown to come meet us in real world gaming. That’s the measure that we’re going to stand by.”

Kirsch adds to that discussion in the memo, opining, “Cinebench is often used by AMD, since it favors high core/thread count and represents one of the best-case benchmarks for AMD. Intel believes that Cinebench is not a representative benchmark for general platform evaluations and real-life workloads.”

Moving on to the datacenter sector, Intel admits that “Competition from AMD is shaping up to be especially tough in high performance computing. HPC performance is usually driven by the number of cores and the number of memory channels (or memory bandwidth). Intel is challenged on both fronts.”

Intel concedes that AMD is in an enviable position with its second-generation EPYC processors, which will be available with up to 64-cores (128 threads). However, the company thinks that its own Xeon processors may still have advantages in cache latency, which could pay dividends in traditional database, analytics and web serving workloads that are so common in cloud applications and in the data center in general. 

Two areas where Intel feels that it won’t see as much of a threat from AMD is with respect to business PCs and notebooks. According to Kirsch, customers in these segments “value specific aspects such as productivity performance, battery life, and overall manageability where Intel has clear advantages versus the competition.” Early signs point to the fact that Intel is likely to have a winner on its hands with its upcoming 10nm Ice Lake-U processors, which will be destined for ultra-portable machines like the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1.

While we won’t delve into everything called out in the memo – there is a whole lot to digest there – we will point out a few more highlights. Intel acknowledges that by going with TSMC as a manufacturing partner, AMD is able to easily take advantage of new process nodes and boost core counts while maintaining lower power consumption. It’s also pointed out that AMD has a very noticeable pricing advantage when compared to Intel processors.

Steve Collins, Director of Intel's Data-centric Competitive Assessment Group, takes on that subject directly, stating:

AMD made improvements in their 2nd generation Zen core and their disaggregated chiplet-based architecture scales cores efficiently. Therefore, on workloads that are heavily threaded, including heavy content creation and most server workloads, they'll get great performance results. And on price, we expect their pricing to be significantly below ours. So they'll likely get good performance-per-dollar. That's what they're going to compete on, and that's the risk to Intel.

However, Collins still tries to downplay that disparity, adding, “I would say users don't buy a chip. They buy a system. They buy a whole solution that includes software enabling, vendor enabling, validation, technical support, manageability, out-of-box experience, supplier sustained consistency, and more.”

So how does Intel plan to combat this renewed AMD threat? It all boils down to six key pillars according to Kirsch: process, architecture, memory, interconnect, security, and software. However, given the number of vulnerabilities found in Intel processors over the past year and a half, the company might want to add some reinforcements to that security pillar.

ryzen 9 3950x banner

All in all, the internal memo is a rather insightful and well-reasoned look at the threat that AMD poses to Intel and how the company can respond (it interestingly makes no specific mention of AMD's leadership behind its success, namely CEO Dr. Lisa Su). Further, some of the strategies detailed in this memo might sound more like marketing speak than an actual full-fledged counter to what Ryzen 3000 and EPYC 2 bring to the table. Regardless, until Intel is firing on all cylinders with its 10nm process across all product segments, it’s likely that AMD will really start to eat Intel’s lunch in the desktop client and datacenter markets, slowly but surely chipping away at market share. If you'd like to check out the Intel memo for yourself, head on over to reddit.