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January 13, 2009

AMD Expands Fusion Strategy with Petaflop Supercomputer

Michael Feldman

Back in June 2008, I suggested Sun Microsystems could accelerate its compute grid with GPU-based nodes. Sun never did, but it looks like AMD is going to give this idea a whirl. Last week at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), AMD CEO Dirk Meyer previewed the company’s one petaflop GPU-based supercomputer: the Fusion Render Cloud. The system will be built from AMD CPUs and GPUs and is due to go online in the second half of 2009.

The Render Cloud will be used to process high-definition (HD) video content and stream it to mobile devices. This is the same content that today is confined almost exclusively to high-end PCs, game consoles, and HD TVs. From the AMD press release:

The system is being designed to enable content providers to deliver video games, PC applications and other graphically-intensive applications through the Internet “cloud” to virtually any type of mobile device with a web browser without making the device rapidly deplete battery life or struggle to process the content. The AMD Fusion Render Cloud will transform movie and gaming experiences through server-side rendering – which stores visually rich content in a compute cloud, compresses it, and streams it in real-time over a wireless or broadband connection to a variety of devices such as smart phones, set-top boxes and ultra-thin notebooks. By delivering remotely rendered content to devices that are unable to store and process HD content due to such constraints as device size, battery capacity, and processing power, HD cloud computing represents the capability to bring HD entertainment to mobile users virtually anywhere.

The system will also be available for large-scale rendering projects, aimed at studios and gaming companies and other CG content developers.

The Render Cloud will initially contain more than 1,000 ATI Radeon 4870 GPUs alongside some number of Phenom II CPUs. But the GPUs are what make the system so computationally dense. Since each 4870 graphics chip delivers around 1.2 teraflops of computing power, it is the GPUs that will deliver the majority of the system FLOPs. According to Meyer, the system will be the most powerful GPU-accelerated supercomputer ever built. Supposedly, it will draw just one-tenth the power of a CPU-based petaflop super.

The real secret sauce to the Render Cloud is the OTOY software (PDF), which enables cinematic quality 3D content to be delivered to a vanilla Web browser. The server-hosted OTOY engine renders HD video and compresses the data so that it can be sent via wireless or broadband connections. If network latency is to be an issue, it wasn’t apparent in the Render Cloud-driven Web demo of the Mercenaries 2 video game.

The rationale for the Render Cloud is that since mobile devices like smart phones, ultrathin notebooks and netbooks lack discrete graphics chips, a render utility can deliver high definition games and video to a much wider audience than is currently the case. The same platform can also send these media streams into a television set top box.

The Render Cloud announcement was part of AMD’s new “Fusion” strategy, the company’s latest mantra for next-generation computing. Its original meaning of offering CPU-GPU hybrid chips has apparently been expanded to include the broader tenets of accelerated computing, which AMD defines thusly:

  • A computer will include general and specialized processors.
  • A processor will be chosen to handle a given task based on its ability to provide optimal performance in terms of compute power, media processing, and presentation, as well as energy efficiency and cost.
  • Software will take advantage of the best hardware for a given processing task without specifying how or where the processing is actually done.
  • Developers will have high-level tools for writing parallel applications.

The model is reminiscent of Cray’s adaptive supercomputing strategy and fits in nicely with AMD’s unique market position as a chipmaker. As the only provider of both CPUs and GPUs, AMD seems more determined than ever to leverage its mixed offerings against Intel and NVIDIA. Considering AMD is currently being outgunned by superior Intel x86 technology, using the ATI graphics division to push heterogeneous computing is a natural way to create some differentiation.

From Meyer’s perspective, the days of Moore’s Law-driven performance in a CPU-centric world are over. Mobile computing and the demand it is generating for new user experiences are transforming the computing landscape. “In the past, processor companies like AMD really changed the world,” said Meyer. “Now I think the world is changing us.”