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The Intel Core i9-9990XE Review: All 14 Cores at 5.0 GHz
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[Image: 9990XE_678x452.jpg]

Within a few weeks, Intel is set to launch its most daring consumer desktop processor yet: the Core i9-9900KS, which offers eight cores all running at 5.0 GHz. There’s going to be a lot of buzz about this processor, but what people don’t know is that Intel already has an all 5.0 GHz processor, and it actually has 14 cores: the Core i9-9990XE. This ultra-rare thing isn’t sold to consumers – Intel only sells it to select partners, and even then it is only sold via an auction, once per quarter, with no warranty from Intel. How much would you pay for one? Well we got one to test.

Build It, And They Will Come

The Core i9-9990XE is the pinnacle of Intel’s 14nm process, binned to such an nth degree that Intel can neither guarantee how many it can produce nor support it in any way or fashion. Unlike other mass market processors, there is no product support on this thing, no such thing as ‘EOL’ – once a system integrator wins it at auction it’s a sunk cost to that integrator. The idea is to sell it on for a premium, before the boss wants it for his own personal system. I mean, who wouldn’t want 14 cores at 5.0 GHz?

This CPU is part of the high-end desktop family of processors, and runs in select X299 motherboards. It’s a Core i9, rather than a Xeon, which means only four memory channels and no ECC support. It does technically support overclocking, although your mileage may vary. This here is a processor for only one market, and it’s a market willing to spend big bucks to get any sort of millisecond latency advantage: high-frequency trading.

At the first auction, we initially knew of three companies that took part. The closed auction was somewhat of a mystery to those wanting to bid: they knew what the hardware was, but not how many Intel were going to offer. Out of the three companies we spoke to, one sat by and didn’t bid, the second got three processors, and a third got the rest. How many that was, we’re not sure – just like how much value these companies put in these parts. As I mentioned at the start: how much would you pay for a 14-core 5.0 GHz all-core processor?

High-Frequency Trading systems are no stranger to esoteric arrangements. Stories of companies spending 10s of millions to implement line-of-sight microwave transmitter towers to shave off 3 milliseconds from the latency time is a story I once heard. All the big financial traders have their servers located as close to the exchange as possible, because the speed of light through an optical cable still isn’t fast enough. These companies not only pay through the nose for the hardware, but also pay experts and specialists to tune those systems for low latency. That means tweaking the memory, overclocking the processor, and even implementing chillers to get a fully stable but the fastest possible system.

So how much would these people pay for a pre-binned 14-core 5.0 GHz processor? Some of them might already be running higher than that, as a standard Core i9-9980XE off the shelf, if you buy enough of them and bin them, could potentially run at this speed. In the end, we got an answer from CaseKing, the recipient of most of these Core i9-9990XE processors: $2800. In fact, since that initial price, it has actually gone up to $2850. Compared to the Core i9-9980XE ($1979), or the newly announced Core i9-10980XE ($999), then yes, traders will easily spend $1000-$2000 more for the lowest latency x86 CPU on the market.

So where do we come in? We have a sample. Technically we have a whole system, from International Computer Concepts, or ICC. ICC is a server specialist – we first met them at Supercomputing 2015 showing off a crazy tower system with 8 different servers in side, but they work closely with Intel to provide specific solutions for different vertical markets: oil and gas, medical, high performance computing, and very importantly, financial. They will sell a system overclocked to the gills.
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