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December 11, 2009

Analysts Speculate on Larrabee Flap

Michael Feldman

As we reported on Monday, the life story of Intel’s manycore GPU processor architecture, codenamed “Larrabee,” has taken an interesting twist. Late last week, the company canceled the rollout of the first Larrabee product, slated to debut next year, while leaving the door open to future graphics and HPC offerings. IT analysts reacted in force, offering a range of speculation on Intel’s decision and what the company’s next move might be.

Like many graphics industry watchers, analyst Jon Peddie figured Intel looked at the flattening growth numbers for discrete GPUs and decided Larrabee didn’t have what it takes to compete in a tightening market. But he’s less sure if Intel will regroup and make a second stab at a discrete GPU platform or switch the focus of the technology to HPC.

In his blog this week, Peddie implied — as Intel also seemed to do in their brief announcement — that the next step for the technology would, in fact, be in high performance computing:

Intel has made a hard decision and we think a correct one. Larrabee silicon was pretty much proven, and the demonstration at SC09 of measured performance hitting 1 TFLOPS (albeit with a little clock tweaking) on a SGEMM Performance test (4K by 4K Matrix Multiply) was impressive. Interestingly it was a computer measurement, not a graphics measurement. Maybe the die had been cast then (no pun intended) with regard to Larrabee’s future.

Of course, 1 teraflop of single precision (for an overclocked chip, by the way) is no great shakes for GPUs these days. Although SGEMM benchmark results are unavailable for NVIDIA and AMD GPU silicon, in general, graphics chips are already well into multi-teraflop territory, with even more performance on the way. And as NVIDIA quickly found out, most of the action in HPC is in the double precision arena anyway.

GigaOM’s Stacey Higginbotham opines that Intel maybe tried to push the x86 beyond its natural abilities by forcing it into the GPU mold. She writes this week:

For Intel, the question becomes, how far can the x86 architecture stretch? Its Larrabee delay suggests that using x86 to develop a decent graphics processor may work, but it can’t compete against specialty GPUs.

The implication here is that Intel learned the wrong lesson from Itanium, that is, x86 compatibility trumps everything else. In the case of discrete GPUs, that’s less likely to be true. The software ecosystem is focused at the API level (e.g., OpenGL and DirectX) rather than the ISA. But for general-purpose GPU computing, x86 compatibility still may make some sense. Like Peddie, Higginbotham thinks the second coming of Larrabee is likely to appear in HPC.

Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64, also expects Intel to deliver a new and improved Larrabee. He writes:

Eventually, although not before 2011, a next generation Larrabee will emerge. Intel always learns from its mistakes, so this new design will avoid the problems that crippled the first generation design. They can replace the archaic Pentium-era core used in the Gen 1 Larrabee with their new, power-efficient Atom core (that was not yet complete when they started Gen 1 in 2007) and thus tame the chip’s power appetite.

However Brookwood goes on to say that the delay blunts Intel’s natural advantage in x86 software, since OpenCL, DirectCompute and CUDA will be that much more mature two years down the road. He points to the recent SC09 conference as evidence of how much momentum has already beem built around GPU computing.

The wildest reaction to the Larrabee news comes from industry reporter Bob Cringely, whose commentary headline says it all: Intel Will Buy nVIDIA. Cringely speculates that Intel wants NVIDIA mainly for its integrated Tegra chips for mobile platforms, and had to get rid of Larrabee to remove the appearance of creating an uncompetitive GPU market. He writes:

.Intel had to do something the minute AMD bought ATi. Now with Larrabee gone Intel has no real choice but to buy another company to remain in contention. The only such company available is nVIDIA.

He also speculated that the resolution of the Intel-AMD lawsuit was a setup to prevent AMD from objecting to a future Intel-NVIDIA merger. If you’re a fan of corporate intrigue, you’ll love Cringely’s take on the situation. But this merger idea has a whole host of problems, not the least of which is that these two companies are fundamentally incompatible. As Jon Peddie writes in a follow-on blog post: “The cultural differences, acrimony, and belligerences between Intel and Nvidia run so deep it would be impossible to blend the organizations without a few homicides.”  Having seen NVIDIA CEO Jen-Hsun Huang espouse this business philosophy at the recent GPU Technology Conference, I tend to agree.

My take is that it’s still too early to count Intel out of the GPU computing game. Although this latest delay isn’t going to help its cause, the overall idea of using a manycore, vector-accelerated x86 design for general-purpose data parallel apps is a reasonable strategy. The chipmaker’s biggest mistake is that it tried to shoot at two fast-moving targets — traditional graphics and GPGPU — without the software expertise to pull it together. I don’t think they’ll make the same mistake again.

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