Ten Best Intel Ice Lake-SP Processors for SQL Server


On April 6th, 2021 Intel held their “How Wonderful Gets Done“ launch event for the new 3rd Generation Intel Xeon Scalable Processors. Specifically, this event was for the new 10nm Intel Xeon “Ice Lake-SP” server processors. There are thirty-five new 10nm Ice Lake-SP SKUs and fifteen older 14nm Cooper Lake-SP SKUs that are included in the 3rd Generation Intel Xeon Scalable Processor Family. In this post, I will give my recommendations for the Ten Best Intel Ice Lake-SP CPUs for SQL Server.

What Is New?

Ice Lake-SP is Intel’s first 10nm server processor. It uses the Sunny Cove architecture with a claimed 20% IPC improvement over Cascade Lake-SP. It has SKUs that range from eight to forty physical cores.

Here are the features that are shared across all SKUs:

  • Eight channels of DDR4-3200 at two DIMMs per channel
  • 4 TB of DRAM per socket
  • Sixty-four PCIe 4.0 lanes
  • Three UPI links at 11.2 GT/s
  • 200-series Optane DC Persistent Memory
  • SGX Enclaves (size will vary by SKU)

There is definitely less artificial product segmentation than in the past. Competition is good! This all sounds promising, but the elephant in the server room is significantly lower base and turbo clock speeds compared to the earlier Cascade Lake-SP family. The other issue is the coming release of Intel’s Sapphire Rapids server CPUs.

Ten Best Intel Ice Lake-SP Processors for SQL Server
3rd Generation Intel Xeon Scalable Processors

One significant change is that Ice Lake-SP only scales to two-sockets, even with a Xeon Platinum SKU. With previous Xeon Scalable generations, the Xeon Platinum SKUs would natively scale to eight-sockets. Now, if you need more than two sockets you will have to use Cooper Lake-SP or Cascade Lake-SP. Because of that, these recommendations are only for one and two-socket servers.

Ten Best Intel Ice Lake-SP Processors for SQL Server
3rd Generation Intel Xeon Scalable Processors

SQL Server 2019 Licensing Basics

SQL Server 2012 and newer uses core-based licensing. For SQL Server 2019, the price per core is $1,793.00 for Standard Edition and $6,874.00 for Enterprise Edition. Core licenses are sold in two-packs, with a minimum of four core licenses per physical processor or virtual machine. Your license costs can increase very quickly with high core count processors!

Thankfully, Microsoft does not change the core license cost based on the actual performance of the processor(s) you are using. The cost per core is the same whether you are using a slow processor or a very fast processor. If you do a good job with your processor choice, you can save a huge amount on your licensing costs.

Knowing this, you absolutely should put some careful thought into exactly which processor you choose. This is especially important for a new server that will be used for SQL Server. Picking a processor that lets you license fewer cores can save you far more money on licensing than the entire new server HW cost. A good processor choice for SQL Server will have better single-threaded CPU performance and may also have more total CPU capacity.

Ten Best Intel Ice Lake-SP CPUs for SQL Server

How do I pick the “best” SKUs in a product family for SQL Server usage? Well, my objective is to select the SKU for each core count that has the highest single-threaded CPU performance. I look at the base clock speed, turbo clock speeds, and how large the L3 cache is. In addition, I look at things like the the cTDP and the number and speed of the UPI links. Finally, I look at available benchmark results.

Intel helpfully groups the more interesting SKUs for SQL Server (or any other software with core licensing) into the table below. The grey color is Xeon Platinum while the gold color is Xeon Gold.

Core-Optimized Performance SKUs

The table below shows the “best” Intel Ice Lake-SP processors for SQL Server at each available core count. It includes the exact SKU, the number of physical cores, clock speeds, and L3 cache size. Also included are the CPU cost and SQL Server 2019 Enterprise Edition license cost. These are the Ten Best Intel Ice Lake-SP Processors for SQL Server.

The license cost is how much it would cost to license SQL Server 2019 Enterprise Edition for a one-socket server with that processor. The five SKUs in bold green are my preferred choices.

Ten Best Intel Ice Lake-SP Processors for SQL Server
Ice Lake-SP System Metrics

The TL:DR is that if you are planning on running SQL Server 2019 on an Intel Ice Lake-SP processor, you should be picking one of the five SKUs in bold green from the table. Otherwise, you are making a mistake.

Virtualization Considerations

On April 2, 2020, VMware implemented a licensing change where if a CPU has more than 32 physical cores, additional CPU licenses will be required. This will double your VMware licensing cost if you use a greater than 32C processor instead of a 32C or lower processor. This means that it is a pretty bad idea to pick a 36C, 38C or 40C Ice Lake-SP SKU and pay double the VMware license cost while only getting a few more cores.

Charlie Demerjian from Semiaccurate has a pretty savage review of Ice Lake-SP where he claims that yields on the highest core count SKUs of Ice Lake-SP are very low. If that is true, that is yet another reason to stay at 32C or lower for a virtualization host for SQL Server.

Initial Reviews

Here are a few initial reviews. None of them are overwhelmingly positive.

I recently wrote about the “Best AMD EPYC 7003 Series Processors for SQL Server“. Since Intel still says that their next generation Sapphire Rapids server CPUs will be released in 2021, it looks like Ice Lake-SP is just a short-lived, stop gap release. Sapphire Rapids next-gen platform will bring DDR5 memory, CXL and PCIe 5.0 along with a new socket.

There are definitely some welcome new features and improvements, but the low clock speeds for this first 10nm release are a big problem. The fact that they only scale to two-sockets is going to be an issue for some customers.

I also think it is telling (in a bad way) that none of the server vendors have bothered to submit any official TPC-E or TPC-H benchmark results for systems using Ice Lake-SP. You can bet that testing has been done, and if the results were good, they would have been officially submitted and shared.

The Intel Ice Lake-SP release is essentially two years late. It helps Intel catch up to the competition in some respects, but falls short in others.

Final Words

The 3rd Generation Intel Xeon Scalable Processor Family has fifty SKUs. Of these, ten SKUs are clearly the best choices at different core counts for SQL Server usage. Here are the Ten Best Intel Ice Lake-SP CPUs for SQL Server.

What do you think? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments and on Twitter. I am pretty active on Twitter as GlennAlanBerry. Thanks for reading!

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