The Modern GPU: A Graphic History

By Alex Woodie

August 21, 2013

What do the Atari 2600 and Tianhe-1 have in common? It may be difficult to imagine, but both systems are examples of the use of cutting-edge graphic processers for their times. This demonstrates the fascinating evolution of the GPU, which today is one of the most critical hardware components of supercomputer architectures.

Techspot’s Graham Singer recently put together a compelling series on the history of the GPU, stretching from the earliest 3D work in the 1950s through today’s GPGPU market. Singer broke his history into four distinct stories.

Singer’s first installment looked at the early days of 3D consumer graphics, a period that lasted from 1976 to 1995. Although 3D graphic systems were being built as early as 1951, when MIT built the Whirlwind flight simulator for the Navy, the graphic 3D systems that developers created for the burgeoning consumer computer market in the mid-1970s formed the foundation for today’s GPU, Singer writes.

The “Pixie” video chip that RCA built in 1976 was capable of outputting a video signal at a resolution of 62×128. 1977 saw the release of the Atari 2600 game system, which included the Television Interface Adapter (TIA) 1A. Motorola followed suit a year later with MC6845 video address generator, which became the basis for the Monochrome and Color Display Adapter (MDA/CDA) cards that IBM started using in its PC of 1981.

The Extended graphics Adapter (EGA) developed by Chips and Technologies started to provide some competition to the MDA/CDA cards starting in 1985. The same year, three Hong Kong immigrants formed Array Technology Inc. The company, which soon changed its name to ATI Technologies Inc., would lead the market for years with its Wonder line of graphics boards and chips.

In 1992, SGI released OpenGL, an open API for 2D and 3G graphics. As OpenGL gained traction in the workstation market, Microsoft attempted to corner the emerging gaming market with its proprietary Direct3D API. Many other proprietary APIs were introduced, such as Matrox Simple Interface, Creative Graphics Library, C Interface (ATI), and others, but they would eventually fall by the wayside. 

Meanwhile, the early 1990s was a period of great volatility in the graphics market, with many companies being found, and then being acquired or going out of business. Among the winners that would be founded during this time was NVIDIA.

The second epoch in Singer’s series lasts from 1995 to 1999, and is characterized by the utter domination of the market by 3DFx’s Voodoo graphics card, which launched in November 1996 and soon came to account for about 85 percent of the market. Cards that could only render 2D were made obsolete nearly overnight, Singer writes. 

3DFx went public in 1997, but the launch of its budget-minded Voodoo Rush board was a flop. And in a bid to boost profits, the company decided to market and sell graphics boards itself, which further helped competitors, including Rendition, ATI, and Nvidia.

Nvidia laid the groundwork for future success with the 1997 launch of the RIVA 128 (Real-time Interactive Video and Animation accelerator), which featured Direct3D compatibility and topped several performance benchmarks. By the end of 1997, Nvidia had nearly 25 percent of the graphics market. Nvidia was sued by SGI in 1998, but Nvidia emerged stronger after the settlement in 1999, in which SGI gave Nvidia access to its professional graphics portfolio. This amounted to a “virtual giveaway of IP” that hastened SGI’s bankruptcy, Singer writes.

The battle between ATI and Nvidia marks Singer’s third era of the GPU’s history, which lasted from 2000 to 2006. During this period, 3dfx became increasingly irrelevant, as its cards, such as the Voodoo 4 4500, could not keep up with the graphics performance offered by Nvidia’s GeForce 2 GTS and ATI’s Radeon DDR.

Nvidia and ATI would go head to head and deliver graphics cards with features are now commonplace, such as the capability to perform specular shading, volumetric explosion, refraction, waves, vertex blending, shadow volumes, bump mapping and elevation mapping.

The coming of the general purpose GPUs would begin in 2007, which kicks off the fourth era of Singer’s GPU history. Both Nvidia and ATI (since acquired by AMD) had been cramming ever-more capabilities into their graphics cards, and the practice of using these cards for HPC workloads became common.

But the two companies would take different tracks to GPGPU, with Nvidia releasing its CUDA development environment, and AMD using OpenCL. Nvidia gained considerable market- and mindshare in the HPC market with the launch of the Tesla, the first dedicated GPGPU.

Related Articles

GPUs Show Big Potential to Speed Pricing Routines at Banks

NVIDIA Shows Off Mobile Variant of Kepler GPU

Saddling Phi for TACC’s Stampede

Subscribe to HPCwire's Weekly Update!

Be the most informed person in the room! Stay ahead of the tech trends with industy updates delivered to you every week!

Summit Now Offers Virtual Tours

August 10, 2020

Summit, the second most powerful publicly ranked supercomputer in the world, now has a virtual tour. The tour, implemented by 3D platform Matterport, allows users to virtually “walk” around the massive supercomputer Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

Supercomputer Simulations Examine Changes in Chesapeake Bay

August 8, 2020

The Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the continental United States, weaves its way south from Maryland, collecting waters from West Virginia, Delaware, DC, Pennsylvania and New York along the way. Like many major e Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

Student Success from ‘Scratch’: CHPC’s Proof is in the Pudding

August 7, 2020

Happy Sithole, who directs the South African Centre for High Performance Computing (SA-CHPC), called the 13th annual CHPC National conference to order on December 1, 2019, at the Birchwood Conference Centre in Kempton Pa Read more…

By Elizabeth Leake

New GE Simulations on Summit to Advance Offshore Wind Power

August 6, 2020

The wind energy sector is a frequent user of high-power simulations, with researchers aiming to optimize wind flows and energy production from the massive turbines. Now, researchers at GE are preparing to undertake a lar Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

Research: A Survey of Numerical Methods Utilizing Mixed Precision Arithmetic

August 5, 2020

Within the past years, hardware vendors have started designing low precision special function units in response to the demand of the machine learning community and their demand for high compute power in low precision for Read more…

By Hartwig Anzt and Jack Dongarra

AWS Solution Channel

AWS announces the release of AWS ParallelCluster 2.8.0

AWS ParallelCluster is a fully supported and maintained open source cluster management tool that makes it easy for scientists, researchers, and IT administrators to deploy and manage High Performance Computing (HPC) clusters in the AWS cloud. Read more…

Intel® HPC + AI Pavilion

Supercomputing the Pandemic: Scientific Community Tackles COVID-19 from Multiple Perspectives

Since their inception, supercomputers have taken on the biggest, most complex, and most data-intensive computing challenges—from confirming Einstein’s theories about gravitational waves to predicting the impacts of climate change. Read more…

Implement Photonic Tensor Cores for Machine Learning?

August 5, 2020

Researchers from George Washington University have reported an approach for building photonic tensor cores that leverages phase change photonic memory to implement a neural network (NN). Their novel architecture, reporte Read more…

By John Russell

Summit Now Offers Virtual Tours

August 10, 2020

Summit, the second most powerful publicly ranked supercomputer in the world, now has a virtual tour. The tour, implemented by 3D platform Matterport, allows use Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

HPE Keeps Cray Brand Promise, Reveals HPE Cray Supercomputing Line

August 4, 2020

The HPC community, ever-affectionate toward Cray and its eponymous founder, can breathe a (virtual) sigh of relief. The Cray brand will live on, encompassing th Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Machines, Connections, Data, and Especially People: OAC Acting Director Amy Friedlander Charts Office’s Blueprint for Innovation

August 3, 2020

The path to innovation in cyberinfrastructure (CI) will require continued focus on building HPC systems and secure connections between them, in addition to the Read more…

By Ken Chiacchia, Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center/XSEDE

Nvidia Said to Be Close on Arm Deal

August 3, 2020

GPU leader Nvidia Corp. is in talks to buy U.K. chip designer Arm from parent company Softbank, according to several reports over the weekend. If consummated Read more…

By George Leopold

Intel’s 7nm Slip Raises Questions About Ponte Vecchio GPU, Aurora Supercomputer

July 30, 2020

During its second-quarter earnings call, Intel announced a one-year delay of its 7nm process technology, which it says it will create an approximate six-month shift for its CPU product timing relative to prior expectations. The primary issue is a defect mode in the 7nm process that resulted in yield degradation... Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

PEARC20 Plenary Introduces Five Upcoming NSF-Funded HPC Systems

July 30, 2020

Five new HPC systems—three National Science Foundation-funded “Capacity” systems and two “Innovative Prototype/Testbed” systems—will be coming onlin Read more…

By Ken Chiacchia, Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center/XSEDE

Nvidia Dominates Latest MLPerf Training Benchmark Results

July 29, 2020

MLPerf.org released its third round of training benchmark (v0.7) results today and Nvidia again dominated, claiming 16 new records. Meanwhile, Google provided e Read more…

By John Russell

$39 Billion Worldwide HPC Market Faces 3.7% COVID-related Drop in 2020

July 29, 2020

Global HPC market revenue reached $39 billion in 2019, growing a healthy 8.2 percent over 2018, according to the latest analysis from Intersect360 Research. A 3 Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Supercomputer Modeling Tests How COVID-19 Spreads in Grocery Stores

April 8, 2020

In the COVID-19 era, many people are treating simple activities like getting gas or groceries with caution as they try to heed social distancing mandates and protect their own health. Still, significant uncertainty surrounds the relative risk of different activities, and conflicting information is prevalent. A team of Finnish researchers set out to address some of these uncertainties by... Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

Supercomputer-Powered Research Uncovers Signs of ‘Bradykinin Storm’ That May Explain COVID-19 Symptoms

July 28, 2020

Doctors and medical researchers have struggled to pinpoint – let alone explain – the deluge of symptoms induced by COVID-19 infections in patients, and what Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

Intel’s 7nm Slip Raises Questions About Ponte Vecchio GPU, Aurora Supercomputer

July 30, 2020

During its second-quarter earnings call, Intel announced a one-year delay of its 7nm process technology, which it says it will create an approximate six-month shift for its CPU product timing relative to prior expectations. The primary issue is a defect mode in the 7nm process that resulted in yield degradation... Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Nvidia Said to Be Close on Arm Deal

August 3, 2020

GPU leader Nvidia Corp. is in talks to buy U.K. chip designer Arm from parent company Softbank, according to several reports over the weekend. If consummated Read more…

By George Leopold

Supercomputer Simulations Reveal the Fate of the Neanderthals

May 25, 2020

For hundreds of thousands of years, neanderthals roamed the planet, eventually (almost 50,000 years ago) giving way to homo sapiens, which quickly became the do Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

10nm, 7nm, 5nm…. Should the Chip Nanometer Metric Be Replaced?

June 1, 2020

The biggest cool factor in server chips is the nanometer. AMD beating Intel to a CPU built on a 7nm process node* – with 5nm and 3nm on the way – has been i Read more…

By Doug Black

Neocortex Will Be First-of-Its-Kind 800,000-Core AI Supercomputer

June 9, 2020

Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center (PSC - a joint research organization of Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh) has won a $5 million award Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

HPE Keeps Cray Brand Promise, Reveals HPE Cray Supercomputing Line

August 4, 2020

The HPC community, ever-affectionate toward Cray and its eponymous founder, can breathe a (virtual) sigh of relief. The Cray brand will live on, encompassing th Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Leading Solution Providers

Contributors

Nvidia’s Ampere A100 GPU: Up to 2.5X the HPC, 20X the AI

May 14, 2020

Nvidia's first Ampere-based graphics card, the A100 GPU, packs a whopping 54 billion transistors on 826mm2 of silicon, making it the world's largest seven-nanom Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Australian Researchers Break All-Time Internet Speed Record

May 26, 2020

If you’ve been stuck at home for the last few months, you’ve probably become more attuned to the quality (or lack thereof) of your internet connection. Even Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

15 Slides on Programming Aurora and Exascale Systems

May 7, 2020

Sometime in 2021, Aurora, the first planned U.S. exascale system, is scheduled to be fired up at Argonne National Laboratory. Cray (now HPE) and Intel are the k Read more…

By John Russell

‘Billion Molecules Against COVID-19’ Challenge to Launch with Massive Supercomputing Support

April 22, 2020

Around the world, supercomputing centers have spun up and opened their doors for COVID-19 research in what may be the most unified supercomputing effort in hist Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

Joliot-Curie Supercomputer Used to Build First Full, High-Fidelity Aircraft Engine Simulation

July 14, 2020

When industrial designers plan the design of a new element of a vehicle’s propulsion or exterior, they typically use fluid dynamics to optimize airflow and in Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

John Martinis Reportedly Leaves Google Quantum Effort

April 21, 2020

John Martinis, who led Google’s quantum computing effort since establishing its quantum hardware group in 2014, has left Google after being moved into an advi Read more…

By John Russell

$100B Plan Submitted for Massive Remake and Expansion of NSF

May 27, 2020

Legislation to reshape, expand - and rename - the National Science Foundation has been submitted in both the U.S. House and Senate. The proposal, which seems to Read more…

By John Russell

Google Cloud Debuts 16-GPU Ampere A100 Instances

July 7, 2020

On the heels of the Nvidia’s Ampere A100 GPU launch in May, Google Cloud is announcing alpha availability of the A100 “Accelerator Optimized” VM A2 instance family on Google Compute Engine. The instances are powered by the HGX A100 16-GPU platform, which combines two HGX A100 8-GPU baseboards using... Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

  • arrow
  • Click Here for More Headlines
  • arrow
Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!
Share This