If you stand around long enough in the offices at CCL, you are certain to hear at least one conversation that starts “Is the AMD Threadripper worth it?”. It’s a valid question, and could be up there with the greatest questions of all time: -
“Superman vs. Batman”
“The Incredible Hulk vs. King Kong”
“1000 Chicken-sized Jeff Bezos vs. 1000 Jeff Bezos-sized chickens”
In this two-part series of articles we’re going to discuss the story of the Threadripper, starting with its concept in 2015, the first generation launches back in 2017 to the latest installments in the high-end processor Hall of Fame - the now great value AMD Ryzen Threadripper 2920X and epic Ryzen Threadripper 3990X.
We’re not just talking about the monster processor’s God-like status in gaming, either. The Threadripper has lent itself to a range of applications, such as deep learning, virtualisation and has been found to be just as useful in powerful server configurations.
In this article we’re also going to talk about the controversies, their part in AMD’s renewed appeal, and the many applications of this monster chip, hoping to find out if they are actually worth the expensive price tag.
Part One: Back to the Future?
Imagine, if you will, that you are a fly on the wall at AMD headquarters in 2015. Deep in the bowels of a high security building, the greatest minds are having a brainstorming session that will result in one CPU being hailed “Intel Killer”. Discussions that include phrases like “far beyond current specifications” and “ridiculous rendering speeds”, and “deep learning applications” are thrown around until somebody stands up and picks up a whiteboard marker to draw the very first schematics of what would be the 1950X and the 1920X.
Scores of AMD employees; directors, core design engineers and platform architects are ushered into the room to marvel at this monstrous creation, and a rudimentary curtain made of AMD white coats is hurriedly pulled away from the whiteboard to unveil Codename: Whitehaven. The smell of coffee and leftover pizza fills the air, and silence engulfs the room until the first clap is heard from the back of the room. A river of applause evolves quickly into cheers and whoops of elation. An eruption of hysteria-induced laughter, high fives and applause.
That’s how we hoped it went down, anyway.
In actual fact, the Threadripper team was a small team from AMD who wanted to build a chip that they would want in their fantasy high-end computer, and to have its very presence in the market give the Intel directors an ulcer.
"It’s not really a story of roadmaps" - Sarah Youngbauer
AMD Senior Vice President and General Manager Jim Anderson, AMD Communications Team Member Sarah Youngbauer, Corporate Vice President of Worldwide Marketing John Taylor and AMD Senior Product Manager, James Prior were all interviewed by Forbes, and were pressed for information about this so-called “pet project”. The internet was alight with speculation, and the first official quotes from Sarah Youngbauer spread across the web like the fateful chimpanzee falling from a branch.
"It’s not really a story of roadmaps and long-term planning or huge R&D budgets - it’s a lot more personal than that and stemmed from a skunkworks project and a small group of AMD employees who had a vision of a processor they’d really want in terms of a high-performance PC." Youngbauer said.
"They worked on it in their spare time and it was really a passion project for about a year before they sought the green light from management, which is quite unusual – it was something they really cared about."
Jim Anderson, who joined AMD from Intel would be a significant part of the Threadripper story, being instrumental in green-lighting of the project in June 2016. It was not a traditional business case early on, however. Anderson said "I’ve never actually told anyone this, but Threadripper never had a business plan – that might raise some eyebrows, but we were building it because we knew it was awesome, because we could and to make it the best product we could; even the name had to be big."
Incidentally, the name Threadripper was the original codename for the project, but the team loved it so much it stuck.
James Prior, one of the more passionate members of the skunkworks team, also added "In fact, even though it was akin to a pet project