What Are Intel Xeon CPUs and Do You Need One?

CG Director Author Christopher Harperby Christopher Harper   /  Published 

What are Intel Xeon CPUs, and when do you need to get one instead of alternative CPUs from Intel or AMD?

Let’s dive into all you need to know about Xeon CPUs to address this question properly.

By the end of this article, I’m hoping to give you a solid idea of whether or not Xeon CPUs are right for you, so let’s not waste any time.

What are Intel Xeon CPUs?

Intel Xeon CPUs are designed specifically for server and workstation use.

Intel Xeon

Xeon is Intel’s brand tailored toward server owners and business owners operating at scale, coming with even higher core counts, RAM support, PCIe-Lane support and more, than their Intel Core i7 and Intel Core i9 series counterparts in the mainstream.

Even Xeons with 60+ cores exist!

What Makes Intel Xeon Different From Other Intel CPUs

So, Intel Xeon is Intel’s server & workstation CPU line, updated each generation alongside Intel’s “Core” processors.

How do CPU Cores work

This corresponds directly to higher core counts, which was especially nice in the pre-Ryzen (and Threadripper) days when Intel was fine with giving an i5 just six cores.

Fortunately, times have changed in the PC space, and Xeon is a curious reflection of that phenomenon, where Intel is concerned.

For one, let’s talk about the key downside of an Intel Xeon CPU. Make no mistake, a Xeon is pretty good if you’re buying it for the right reasons.

However, if you’re expecting it to have the same superb per-core performance as a desktop Intel Core processor, you may be disappointed.

While an Intel Xeon CPU does enjoy a much higher core count, these individual cores are all a bit slower than the ones on an Intel Core CPU, even if they’re being updated with a new architecture just as often.

Don’t let this discourage you by itself, though! Especially if your primary workloads are easily scalable across multiple cores, an Intel Xeon CPU may still be an ideal pick for you or your business.

Here’s a quick overview of how Intel Xeon and Intel Core CPUs compare:

 Intel XeonIntel Core
# of Cores2 - 602 - 24
Single Core PerformanceLowerHigher
ECC RAM supportYesNo Motherboard Support
Max RAM Capacity4 TByte192 GByte
Max RAM ChannelsOcta ChannelDual Channel
L3 Cacheup to 112.5 MByteup to 36 MByte
CPU PCIe-Lanes (5.0)up to 112up to 16
Multi-CPU SupportYesNo

Let’s break down the audiences here:

When You Should Get Intel Xeon CPUs

When building a CPU-based server

These are Intel’s server CPUs for a reason, however, they aren’t perfectly balanced for all tasks. Xeon CPUs are great if you can make use of their unique features.

If you’re looking to build a server, multiple servers or a renderfarm, Xeon CPUs make a good pick vs Intel Core mainstream CPUs if:

  • The workloads you’ll be running on these servers don’t rely on high single-core performance
  • The workloads scale well across many, if not, all available cores

CPU-Rendering is just one example of a workload that would make great use of high-core-count Intel Xeon CPUs.

When building a GPU-based server

If your workloads scale well across multiple GPUs, Xeon CPUs are extremely practical thanks to their many PCIe-Lanes. With Xeon CPUs you can drive more GPUs without cutting back on PCIe-bandwidth.

GPU Render Servers, Machine Learning, there are many use cases for GPU-Servers at scale.

You want to use a dual CPU motherboard.

Dual CPU boards are commonplace in the server space and thus enable Dual Xeon setups. If 60 Cores sounds like heaven to you, how about 2x 60 Cores inside the same server without the need of a second server or extra space? Pure bliss.

Of course, at this scale, you’ll want to consider AMD EPYC CPUs as well. You get even higher core counts at considerably lower power-draw.

Features of Dual Socket Motherboards

When you want the benefits of a server form-factor and other Xeon features

Apart from some very specific use-cases that we’ve listed above, Xeon CPUs have other benefits that may come in handy for your needs:

  • You want the benefits of the server form-factor
  • Your workloads need a LOT of RAM, or can make great use of higher RAM Bandwidth
  • You need ECC RAM support for critical, highly reliable and stable applications
  • Your tasks can make great use of a larger L3 cache

When You Should Get Intel Core Mainstream CPUs

When building a Workstation

Although Intel Xeon CPUs are made for Servers & Workstations, we can’t recommend them for a workstation that you’ll be actively working on just yet.

The reason is simple: They lack in single-core performance. And 90% of what you do on an active workstation, is interacting with applications. Active work is highly dependent on high single-core performance (high core & boost clocks), and Xeons just aren’t up to par for active work when you can work on a high-end Intel Core.

So unless a very large part of your work involves waiting forhighly scalable multi-core-dependent workloads (like CPU rendering) to complete, my recommendation is to get an Intel Core CPU for any active work and (if your wallet permits this) a secondary optimized (render) PC that’ll do just that: process those multi-core-dependent tasks.

After all, your own work-time is much more valuable than the computer’s work time.

When building a balanced personal machine

Even if you’re going to do workstation tasks on a home PC, you do have some options for improving these workflows with high-end consumer CPUs like the Core i9 or Ryzen 9.

Unlike a server-grade Xeon or EPYC CPU, the high-end mainstream CPUs will maintain their superior single-core performance while still pushing high (16-20+) core counts!

Single core vs multi core performance

You want to have any semblance of good gaming performance

Unfortunately, for pros who want to get some gaming done on the side, server CPUs don’t tend to be a particularly good choice for games. Even games well-optimized for multiple cores aren’t expecting to scale across an entire server CPU.

Good CPU optimization has a different meaning in game development than just putting every core to work, as nice as that would be.

CPU Utilization - Gaming

Image Credit: Epic Games

You want to save money

That’s the big one. You can probably clutch some nice deals on Intel Xeon motherboards and CPUs on the used market, but in general, if you just need a working PC, a mainstream CPU, and the board should be your first choice.

However, if you can easily see your workloads of choice scaling to dozens of cores and that extra speed paying off, Xeon (or better yet: Threadripper / EPYC) is definitely worth considering as a long-term investment.


What Is HEDT?

Besides Server CPUs (Xeon) and Mainstream CPUs (Core), there are also HEDT CPUs.

HEDT, or High-End Desktop, refers to high-end consumer platforms that are primarily meant as a middle ground between the hyper-abundant core count of server CPUs and the competent per-core power of mainstream CPUs.

CPU Market Segments

Ultimately, HEDT still leans a bit more toward server DNA, but will still be a better choice for mixed workloads than a server platform.

Can You Game on an Intel Xeon CPU?

Yes, but it will heavily depend on the game and it still generally isn’t recommended.

All the time spent in the article above warning you about the poor single-core performance of an Intel Xeon CPU was not wasted: it is a genuinely bad experience compared to gaming on an Intel Core processor.

However, depending on the game, you may still find yourself having a salvageable experience.

Even older Xeon CPUs were capable of some gaming when forced into a corner, as shown in the video above.

It’s still not an ideal scenario though, so if you have any inclinations toward gaming you should definitely get an HEDT or mainstream platform going instead.

Is Intel Xeon Better Than AMD EPYC?

Both Xeon and EPYC are notorious for topping the list in multi-core performance due to their sheer abundance of cores, but overall I would say that AMD EPYC seems to be gaining a justified lead in the server market.

AMD is generally pushing more cores at a lower price point per core than Intel is with Xeon.

However, this is always subject to change, so be sure to just check what your options are before making such an expensive CPU purchase.

Over to You

And that’s it, for now!

I hope this article helped clear up what Intel Xeon CPUs are and if they may be suitable for your workloads.

If you’re out here looking for information on server CPUs, I’d love to hear from you in the comments section: what are you building your server for? What CPUs are currently looking appealing to you?

Whether you have related experiences to share or questions to ask, feel free to ask them in the comments section down below!

Besides the comments, you can also head over to the CGDirector Forums for interaction with the rest of the team and community. We’re all passionate about PC hardware here, and are generally happy to help with any questions we have the answers to.

Until we see you or until the next time you read one of my articles, have a good one!

And don’t forget: server CPUs may not have strong single-core performance, but they scale extremely well with the right workload.

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Christopher Harper

I have been a passionate devotee to technology since the age of 3, and to writing since before I even finished high school.

These passions have since combined into a living in my adulthood and have made writing about PC Hardware very satisfying.

If you need any assistance, leave a comment below: it’s what I’m here for.


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