Best Intel Xeon Processors for SQL Server


As was rumored, Intel has released eighteen new Xeon server processors that are part of their 2nd Generation Xeon Scalable Family. Of these eighteen new processors, six of them are extremely interesting for SQL Server usage. In fact, those six new Xeon processors are among the nine best Intel Xeon Processors for SQL Server.

Intel Xeon Cascade Lake Refresh
Figure 1: Intel Xeon Cascade Lake Refresh

SQL Server 2019 Licensing Basics

SQL Server uses core-based licensing, and has done so since SQL Server 2012. For SQL Server 2019, the price per core is $1,793.00 for Standard Edition and $6,874.00 for Enterprise Edition. Licenses are sold in two-packs, with a minimum of four core licenses per physical processor or virtual machine.

Thankfully, Microsoft does not vary the core license cost based on the actual or relative performance of the processor(s) you are using. The cost per core is the same whether you are using an old slow processor or a brand new, very fast processor.

Knowing this, you can (and absolutely should) put some careful thought into exactly which processor you choose for a new server that will be used for SQL Server. If you do a good job with your processor choice, you can save a huge amount on your licensing costs. You can also get better single-threaded performance and have more total CPU capacity.

Best Intel Xeon Processors for SQL Server

Intel has 66 different SKUs in the 2nd Generation Xeon Scalable Processor Family. They range from four physical cores all the way up to fifty-six physical cores (if you count the Xeon Platinum 9200 series). At each physical core count, they have multiple SKUs to choose from. Choosing the right SKU at a given core count that is best for SQL Server is what you want to do.

Here are the best Intel Xeon Processors for SQL Server, for each physical core count. These are for a two-socket system:

The system metric numbers in Figure 2 are for a two-socket system, with both sockets populated. I have done some simple calculations, based on an actual TPC-E benchmark result for a two-socket Lenovo system with two Intel Xeon Platinum 8280 processors. These calculations are the source of the estimated TPC-E numbers in Figure 2.

The TPC-E Score is a measure of the total CPU capacity of the system. Next, the score/core is a measure of the single-threaded CPU performance of that processor. Finally, the license cost is how much it would cost to license SQL Server 2019 Enterprise Edition for a two-socket server, with both sockets populated.

Best Intel Xeon Processors for SQL Server
Figure 2: Best Intel Xeon Processors for SQL Server

Some Analysis

If you look closely at the numbers in Figure 2, you may notice some interesting differences. Even though these are the best choices at each physical core count, some core counts are better than others. For example, the 24-core Intel Xeon Gold 6248R has a higher base clock speed than the 26-core Intel Xeon Platinum 8270. This gives it both more CPU capacity and better single-threaded CPU performance. If you chose a two-socket system with the Gold 6248R instead of the Platinum 8270, you would also save $27,496.00 in SQL Server 2019 license costs. That savings would pay for a pretty well-equipped two-socket server.

A similar case could be made comparing the 18-core Intel Xeon Gold 6254 to the 16-core Intel Xeon Gold 6246R. The 6246R system would have slightly less CPU capacity, but I don’t think that would be an issue in most cases.

If you know you will be using SQL Server 2019 Standard Edition (with it’s 24 core per instance license limit), then you should not get a system with more than 24 cores. That fact makes the new Intel Xeon Gold 6256 a great choice for a two-socket system in that scenario.

Finally, the new 8C/16T Intel Xeon Gold 6250 is going to be an absolute speed demon, especially for OLTP workloads. It has a base clock of 3.90 GHz, a turbo clock of up to 4.5 GHz, and 35.75 MB of L3 cache shared across only eight physical CPU cores. It will also support up to 1 TB of RAM per socket (although you are practically limited to 768 GB with twelve 64 GB DIMMs).

If you need more RAM density at this core count, you can go to the Intel Xeon Gold 6250L, which up the RAM limit per socket to 4.5 TB. Practically, you will still be limited to 1.5 TB per socket with twelve 128 GB DIMMs. You could also use some Intel Optane DC Persistent Memory to get closer to that 4.5 TB per socket limit. You can have up to six Optane DIMMs along with six DDR4 DIMMs per socket.

Further Reading

Here are a few posts about this, if you want to read further.

Final Words

This Intel Xeon Refresh is actually a pretty significant development, especially for SQL Server OLTP workloads. Six of the eighteen new SKUs actually make it on my “Best Intel Xeon Processors for SQL Server” list. You get higher base clock speeds in most cases and larger L3 cache sizes in some cases. You also get large price reductions when you look at the per core price.

This is obviously a competitive reaction to the threat posed by the AMD EPYC 7002 series processors. I think this is a long overdue move by Intel, but it is good that they have finally made it. This should help reduce Intel’s market share losses in the server market until they can get their “Ice Lake” Xeon parts launched.

If you are looking at a new two-socket Intel-based server for SQL Server usage, you should make sure you choose a processor from my list. Otherwise, you could be making a very expensive mistake! Please let me know what you think in the comments. Thanks for reading!

Categories Intel, PC HardwareTags ,

10 thoughts on “Best Intel Xeon Processors for SQL Server

  1. Have you considered optimizing builds for single socket systems?

    1. Single-socket is what we will see more of in the future. Most server vendors don’t offer that many single-socket models that use Xeon Scalable CPUs instead of Xeon E CPUs. There are quite a few AMD-based single-socket servers though. Thanks for the comment!

  2. Hi Glenn, I love your articles! What are your thoughts regarding quad socket systems and their impact on SQL Server workloads, specifically in virtualized environments?

    Also, regardless of 2S or 4S, what are the key things to look for when choosing an Intel Gold series “R” CPU’s with 2 UPI links vs. an Intel Platinum CPU with 3?

    1. Thanks for the kind words! I am not a big fan of four-socket servers for SQL Server usage. They have more NUMA overhead and cost much more (per socket) than two-socket servers. If possible, I would much rather have two, two-socket servers rather than one four-socket server.

      An Intel Xeon Gold 6250 has 3 UPI links just like a Xeon Platinum 8280 has 3 UPI links.

      The HCC Xeon Gold CPUs do have 2 UPI links

  3. January 17, 2021 — 4:49 pm

    Thanks for the article Glenn. It’s very interesting and quite rightly important to chose the right spec to avoid extra costs. I was thinking of XEON Gold 6246R CPU with 16 cores per CPU for an OLTP workload on SQL 2019. Coupled with NVMe to get the best performance. I’m just confused as to whether I should go with higher clock speed vs cores. Increasing cores increase costs on licenses but I guess with higher clock speeds losing the cores isn’t a massive worry. I guess it only matters if you are using a lot of parallel queries. What are your thoughts on this?

    1. Better single-threaded CPU performance lets you get better SQL Server performance with lower license cost, as long as you have enough total CPU capacity to handle your workload. Many OLTP queries are single threaded.

  4. hi Glen,
    We’re looking to get some newer SQL Servers … Right now I have a server with Intel(R) Xeon(R) CPU E7-8870 v4 @ 2.10GHz (4 sockets with 20 cores per socket and 40 logical processors per socket).
    MS explained to the Manager of Infrastructure that the XEON Gold 6256 would be enough to handle the same as what we have? A 4 X 12 configuration? It looks to me like we’re going from 160 logical to 48 cores? I know the speed is much faster. What do you think?

    1. The Xeon Gold 6256 has 12C/24T, and only works in a two-socket server.

      The Xeon Gold 6254 has 18C/36T, so it might have a little more total capacity, even though it is slower.

      It depends on your workload.

Please tell me what you think

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