Intel Confirms 10nm Ice Lake Xeon Production Has Started

As part of this week’s announcements, Intel has confirmed to AnandTech that it has started production its next generation server processors, known as Ice Lake 3rd Generation Xeon Scalable. This news is somewhat at odds with remarks made by the CEO Bob Swan, and also doesn’t fit into the timeline of how Intel’s processor production usually works, and it appears to go beyond simple terminology.

When a company like Intel creates a new generation of server processor, either using a new microarchitecture or process node (or both), iterations and revisions of that server processor are made as the design is tweaked and optimized. Throughout the process, Intel’s largest customers, notably the hyperscalers in today’s environment, get early access to this beta hardware. Part of the agreement to access is helping Intel debug and tune the design, as well as a big hefty order. Throughout this process, the customer will use the beta hardware to tune their own software platforms, and in some instances, move the product into deployment-level infrastructure. Note that as the product gets nearer launch, these key customers will have thousands upon thousands of ‘engineering samples’ in various states of performance and usability. The line at which the customer gets shipped ‘full retail’ units rather that beta hardware is blurred, especially as these customers will often keep hold of the engineering samples that work as expected.

So not only is there this overlap, but also the key customers that help Intel in this regard get the first production-ready units. More often than not, Intel will hold back any formal public announcement of the product until the quota from the key customers is met, and then Intel can sell it to the wider masses, known as ‘general availability’. This lead time can vary to as much as six months, where in these six months those customers are getting the latest and greatest and the rest of the world doesn’t know it is ready.

So this is where we get into a mix about exact working on when a product, especially when comparing ‘announcements’ to ‘launches’ to ‘shipping for revenue’ to ‘general availability’ or ‘ramping production’ (scaling up manufacturing to build more).

In our interview with CEO Bob Swan, also posted today, he stated that the Ice Lake Xeon Scalable product has been launched in 2020. This is news to us, as there was no formal announcement. However what he might be talking about is that it ‘launched’ to those key customers. In that sense, the product is shipping for revenue. However, in the same instance, he also said that Ice Lake Xeon Scalable was ramping up production in Intel’s 10nm facilities. This would suggest that while Intel has been producing the hardware for a while, it is only now at a point where it feels comfortable adding more volume to meet expected demand.

However, in the official press release from Intel today, the company says that it is ‘starting production’ of Ice Lake Xeon Scalable, with ‘volume ramp taking place during Q1 2021’. This would seem to suggest that Intel only just starting production of a finished version of the hardware, and that the product ramp is still to come later in the quarter.

So either Ice Lake Xeon is launched, or it isn’t. It’s either in production, or it’s starting to ramp, or it is ramping, or production will be ramped as we move through Q1. Whatever Intel is trying to say here, your guess is as good as mine. I know some of my critics might call me out for not accepting what is being said at face value, or claim that what Intel is saying is clear. It’s a bit wishy-washy, and some of it is contradictory. I think we would all hope that Intel would be precise in describing its next generation of revenue generating data-center product.

With Intel’s end-of-year financial disclosures in a couple of weeks, we might get more insight into Intel’s Ice Lake Xeon Scalable status, along with a more public launch somewhere along the line, and discussions about Intel’s plans for its manufacturing beyond 10nm. If Ice Lake is indeed ‘launched’ in FY2020, that would mean Intel met a FY2020 target, which is likely to be important to investors.

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