Intel's CPU Roadmap: To Nehalem and Beyond

Sneak Peek at Larrabee - Intel gets Serious on 3D Graphics

Sneak Peek at Larrabee - Intel gets Serious on 3D Graphics

Recall the Intel StarFighter AGP graphics card powered by the Intel i740 graphics chip? Codeveloped with Real 3D, that was Intel's only real stab at entering the discrete graphics market back in 1998. Though they fared reasonably, Intel never followed it up and exited the 3D graphics card market quite shortly as they went back to focus on their core areas of expertise. Ironically, they still hold the largest graphics market share by virtue of their integrated graphics engines in their core logic chipsets that's almost ubiquitous these days.

10 years later, Intel is developing a new generation architecture to head back into the visualization market. Visual Computing is what they term it and they are really serious this time round. They plan to tackle life-like rendering, HD audio/video processing and physics model processing by utilizing a programmable and readily available architecture such as several simpler Intel Architecture (IA) cores. Intel plans to add a vector computational unit to each of the cores as well as introduce a vector handling instruction set. They believe their leadership in the total computing architecture of the various platforms and a vast software engineering department will help them achieve their goal of creating Larrabee. Based on a flexible computing architecture (similar to Nehalem's various building blocks), it can be scaled up or down for various market needs. Here's a slide from Intel and how the Larrabee processing architecture would look like:-

Also expected in the 2010 timeframe, Larrabbee is likely to be a discrete 'GPU' like offering from Intel. However, it may or may be a 'graphics card'. For all we know, it may even use Intel's QuickPath Interconnects as a drop-in to an auxiliary socket to communicate with the processors and may even utilize the system's main memory. Remember, Nehalem's memory controller can handle up to 64GB/s - that's a fait bit of memory bandwidth for several high-end graphics cards these days. However the question of latencies will be one of the toughest to tackle and we've not yet seen how QPI handles itself in real life. But this idea could be ideal for a lower-end offering from Intel whereas higher-end versions can contain dedicated local frame buffers. Still, all of these are just speculations for now as there's a long way to go.

Even though Larrabee uses an array of IA cores, thus relying on the x86 instruction set and its extensions, Larrabee will support industry standard APIs like Direct3D and OpenGL. How this will be achieved would be the job of their software development team to create tools for development and performance optimization in taking in the D3D and OGL calls from software/games such that they can be successfully processed on a standard x86 ISA core. This will be their biggest challenge since graphics hardware and CPU hardware are designed differently to tackle very different workloads. However the key difference is that Larrabee though based on an array of x86 cores, its instruction set supported wouldn't be the same as what current CPUs utilize since it will have further extensions on vector processing and the likes. Furthermore, its structure will be tweaked for the purpose of addressing Visual Computing. However, if software/game developers focus on Larrabee's instruction set architecture directly, the gains derived would be far more. Intel certainly has a lot of work cut out for itself if they are to succeed in this arena. They have however commented that industry developers have already shown keen interest in Larrabee, but it will be a while before firm partnership and development press announcements are made known since it's still early days.

In meantime, we expect AMD's Fusion to be available in 2010 as well (or earlier) and that should further spice up the competition for Intel and NVIDIA (the current visualization leader). AMD's Fusion however has thus far been portrayed more of a simple GPU being integrated into the CPU and would likely be an integrated graphics chipset replacement solution more than a powerful visual computing companion - at least that's how we've been told.

One thing's for certain, 2010 is certainly a year where sparks will literally fly as we expect a new level competition on the CPU and GPU fronts by the big boys of the tech industry. Exciting times await us, so start placing your bets and keep a watch on their stocks.

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