My irritation with Intel's CPU segmentation (and why it probably exists)

August 16, 2015

I'd like the CPU in my next machine to have ECC RAM, for all sorts of good reasons. I'm also more or less set on using Intel CPUs, because as far as I know they're still on top in terms of performance and power efficiency. As I've written about before, this leaves me with the problem that only some Intel CPUs and chipsets actually support ECC.

(It appears that Intel will actually give you a straightforward list of CPUs here, which is progress from the bad old days. Desktop chipsets with ECC support are listed here, and there's always the Wikipedia page.)

One way to describe what Intel is doing here is market segmentation. Want ECC? You'll pay more. Except it's not that simple, because what's missing ECC support in CPUs is the middle models, especially the attractive and relatively inexpensive ones in the i5 and to a lesser extent the i7 line (there are some high-end i7s with ECC support); at the low end there's a number of inexpensive i3s with ECC support, including recent ones. This is market segmentation with a twist.

What I assume is going on is that Intel is zealously protecting the server CPU and chipset market by keeping server makers from building servers that use attractive midrange desktop CPUs and chipsets. These CPUs provide quite a decent amount of performance, CPU cores, and so on, but because they're aimed at the midrange market they sell for not all that much compared to 'server' CPUs (and the bleeding edge of desktop CPUs), which means that Intel makes a lot less from your server. So Intel deliberately excludes ECC support from these models to make them less attractive on servers, where customers are more likely to insist on it and be willing to pay more. Similarly Intel keeps ECC support out of many 'desktop' chipsets so that they don't turn into de facto server chipsets.

(Intel could try to keep CPUs and chipsets out of servers by limiting how much memory they support, and to a certain extent Intel does. The problem for Intel is that desktop users long ago started demanding enough memory for many servers.)

At the same time, Intel supports ECC in lower-end CPUs and chipsets because there's also a market for low-cost and relatively low performance servers; sometimes you just want a 1U server with some CPU and RAM and disk for some undemanding purpose. This market would be just as happy to use AMD CPUs and AMD certainly has relatively low performance CPUs to offer (and I believe they have ECC; if not, they certainly could if AMD saw a market opening). So if you're happy with a two-core i3 in your server or even an Atom CPU, well, Intel will sell you one with ECC support (and for cheap).

However much I understand this market segmentation, it obviously irritates me because I fall exactly into that midrange CPU segment. I don't want the expensive (and generally hot) high end CPUs, but I also want more than just the 2-core i3 level of performance. Since Intel is not about to give up free money, this is where I wish that they had more competition in the form of AMD doing better at making attractive midrange CPUs (with ECC).

(I think that Intel having more widespread ECC support in CPUs and chipsets would lead to motherboard companies supporting it on their motherboards, but I could be wrong.)

Written on 16 August 2015.
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Last modified: Sun Aug 16 02:29:23 2015
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