High-end desktop (HEDT) processors first emerged in 2003 when competition between AMD and Intel intensified as a result of the Athlon 64 launch. Ironically, HEDT CPUs are now disappearing from the market as competition between AMD and Intel is more intense than ever, according to Puget Systems, a boutique workstation maker.
The situation may change in the coming months, but for now many HEDT users have to get regular desktop CPUs or pay extra for top-of-the-range workstation offerings as AMD does not seem to produce Ryzen Threadripper 3000X-series products any longer.
Historically, HEDT processors from AMD and Intel were aimed at demanding gamers as well as professionals and, to meet their needs, they used silicon and packaging originally designed for server-grade CPUs, which is why they could offer not only higher performance, but also additional features (extra PCIe lanes, higher memory capacity). Unlike server chips, these processors featured considerably higher frequencies yet carried lower price tags because they lacked symmetric multiprocessing (SMP) support. After all, all that gamers needed was single-thread performance and high clocks along with large caches did the job, not SMP.
Following AMD’s unexpected release of its first Ryzen Threadripper CPUs with up to 32 cores in 2017, classification and positioning of HEDT chips changed drastically as gamers demanded processors with high clocks and maximum single-thread performance, whereas professionals wanted CPUs with as many cores as possible as well as rich I/O capabilities.
Oxymoron: Outdated HEDT Platforms
Nowadays there are formally several types of CPUs for high-end desktops and workstations from AMD and Intel.
AMD offers Ryzen Threadripper for the so-called extreme workstations that need loads of cores at frequencies above and beyond default clocks and Ryzen Threadripper Pro for machines that need up to 2TB of memory and are not designed for overclocking.
At present, AMD is the only one to offer 64-core CPUs for extreme and traditional workstations, which is perhaps why its platform for extreme HEDTs is still based around Ryzen Threadripper 3000X-series CPUs that are powered by its Zen 2 microarchitecture from 2019. Meanwhile, these CPUs are currently the most popular workstation/HEDT processors among buyers of Puget Systems.
With Intel, the situation is more complicated. For the highest-end dual-socket workstation the company offers its very expensive Xeon Scalable processors that support plenty of memory and have many PCIe lanes. For single-socket machines, the company has Xeon W-3300 series CPUs that top at 38 cores and are based on the Ice Lake microarchitecture from 2019.
For enthusiast-grade workstations/desktops Intel has its Core X (Core Extreme) lineup that was released in 2019 and belongs to the Cascade Lake family of CPUs. For now, Intel has nothing to offer against AMD’s Ryzen Threadripper series as far as core count is concerned.
As surprising as it may sound, of all HEDT platforms available today, only AMD’s Ryzen Threadripper Pro 5000WX-series is based on an up-to-date microarchitecture (Zen 3), whereas the remaining platforms are all powered by outdated microarchitectures and, in some cases, lack modern I/O support. To make the matters even stranger, Ryzen Threadripper Pro 5000WX is currently only available from Lenovo.
AMD’s Ryzen Threadripper 3000X: The Departing Workstation King
While AMD’s Zen 2-based Ryzen Threadripper 3000X-series CPUs are not single-thread performance champions, their 64 Zen 2 cores coupled with 128 PCIe 4.0 lanes offer incredible value for workstation users, which is why they have been the most popular workstation-grade processors at Puget since mid-2020.
There is a problem with these CPUs though: there is a major shortage of AMD’s Ryzen Threadripper processors on the market in general as it looks like AMD is winding down production of its Threadripper 3000X/ Pro 3000WX products, and it is nearly impossible for system makers to get them directly from the company. Meanwhile, third-party resellers sell AMD’s Ryzen Threadripper 3970X and 3990X CPUs with a $1,000 – $4,000+ markup over list prices, which makes workstations based on them uncompetitive.
“Crazy-high listings like that indicate to me that there are only a small number of these chips left on the market, and so those who have remaining stock are driving up prices to maximize their profits before they are gone,” wrote William George, a product development specialist for Puget Systems. “Since the market price of Threadripper chips is rising, not lowering, I feel pretty confident in suggesting that they are no longer being manufactured.”
To make the matters worse for Puget, prices of Intel’s Xeon W-3300 are high, whereas their performance and value proposition are not as high as those of AMD’s platform (when chips are bought directly from the company), which is why the share of Xeon W-based machines in Puget’s sales is only about 4.3%.
Desktop CPUs Challenge HEDT Parts
But in addition to HEDT processors for workstations, both AMD and Intel offer advanced desktop CPUs with up to 16 cores based on their contemporary microarchitectures and up to 128GB of memory support. These CPUs are good enough for the vast majority of games (as they can barely use more than 16 cores) and many workstation workloads (after all, not everyone does final rendering every day, but fast storage and modern I/O are required all the time). To that end, many traditional workstation clients opt for parts like AMD’s Ryzen 9 5950X or Intel’s Core i9-12900KS.
Both AMD’s Ryzen 9 5950X or Intel’s Core i9-12900KS are essentially cherry-picked desktop parts that are relatively easy to make and bin. They are still expensive enough to bring substantial profits to their respective suppliers and they are sold in very high volumes to different audiences.
By contrast, HEDT parts use server-grade silicon that can be sold at a higher price once qualified for AMD EPYC or Intel Xeon products, so making HEDT CPUs when demand for server-class hardware is skyrocketing and manufacturing capacity is limited is not particularly logical from earnings and profitability points of view. Furthermore, even Ryzen Threadripper Pro parts are sold with a considerable markup. As a result, in some cases AMD and Intel may be more inclined to sell cherry-picked unlocked desktop parts or Xeon/Pro parts instead of HEDT processors.
No Way Out?
While, for some workloads, the 24 threads or 32 threads offered by regular desktop parts is enough, many workstation workloads need those 64 cores/128 threads and 256GB of memory, so workstation users have to opt for far more expensive AMD’s Ryzen Threadripper Pro 3000WX/5000WX or Intel Xeon W-3300-series processors.
Puget Systems hopes that once AMD starts volume shipments of its Ryzen Threadripper Pro 5000WX processors, prices of these parts may stabilize and/or get lower. Of course, it would have been better for system integrators and users if AMD released its Ryzen Threadripper 5000X or 6000X non-Pro parts, but now AMD is comfortable with its 64-core workstation-bound AMD Ryzen Threadripper Pro 5995WX parts that are sold with a considerably larger margin.
In general, the situation with HEDT processors will likely change when Intel rolls-out its Alder Lake-X/Sapphire Rapids-X platform later in 2022 or in 2023, but now that there is essentially a monopoly on the market of workstation and high-end desktop CPUs, prices of such CPUs will hardly get any lower, which is why many people will opt for ‘regular’ 16-core desktop-grade CPUs.