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!

Democratization of HPC Part 3: Ninth Graders Tap HPC in the Cloud to Design Flying Boats

October 18, 2018

This is the third in a series of articles demonstrating the growing acceptance of high-performance computing (HPC) in new user communities and application areas. In this article we present UberCloud use case #208 on how Read more…

By Wolfgang Gentzsch and Håkon Bull Hove

Penguin Computing Launches Consultancy for Piecing AI Strategies Together

October 18, 2018

AI stands before the HPC industry as a beacon of great expectations, yet market research repeatedly shows that AI adoption is commonly stuck in the talking phase, on the near side of a difficult chasm to cross. In respon Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

When Water Quality—Not Quantity—Hinders HPC Cooling

October 18, 2018

Attention has been paid to the sheer quantity of water consumed by supercomputers’ cooling towers – and rightly so, as they can require thousands of gallons per minute to cool. But in the background, another factor can emerge, bottlenecking efficiency and raising costs: water quality. Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

HPE Extreme Performance Solutions

One Small Step Toward Mars: One Giant Leap for Supercomputing

Since the days of the Space Race between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union, we have continually sought ways to perform experiments in space. Read more…

IBM Accelerated Insights

Paper Offers ‘Proof’ of Quantum Advantage on Some Problems

October 18, 2018

Is quantum computing worth all the effort being poured into it or should we just wait for classical computing to catch up? An IBM blog today posed those questions and, you won’t be surprised, offers a firm “it’s wo Read more…

By John Russell

Penguin Computing Launches Consultancy for Piecing AI Strategies Together

October 18, 2018

AI stands before the HPC industry as a beacon of great expectations, yet market research repeatedly shows that AI adoption is commonly stuck in the talking phas Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

When Water Quality—Not Quantity—Hinders HPC Cooling

October 18, 2018

Attention has been paid to the sheer quantity of water consumed by supercomputers’ cooling towers – and rightly so, as they can require thousands of gallons per minute to cool. But in the background, another factor can emerge, bottlenecking efficiency and raising costs: water quality. Read more…

By Oliver Peckham

Paper Offers ‘Proof’ of Quantum Advantage on Some Problems

October 18, 2018

Is quantum computing worth all the effort being poured into it or should we just wait for classical computing to catch up? An IBM blog today posed those questio Read more…

By John Russell

Dell EMC to Supply U Michigan’s Great Lakes Cluster

October 16, 2018

The University of Michigan (U-M) today announced Dell EMC is the lead vendor for U-M’s $4.8 million Great Lakes HPC cluster scheduled for deployment in first Read more…

By John Russell

Houston to Field Massive, ‘Geophysically Configured’ Cloud Supercomputer

October 11, 2018

Based on some news stories out today, one might get the impression that the next system to crack number one on the Top500 would be an industrial oil and gas mon Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Nvidia Platform Pushes GPUs into Machine Learning, High Performance Data Analytics

October 10, 2018

GPU leader Nvidia, generally associated with deep learning, autonomous vehicles and other higher-end enterprise and scientific workloads (and gaming, of course) Read more…

By Doug Black

Federal Investment in Exascale – What It Really Means

October 10, 2018

Earlier this month, the EuroHPC JU (Joint Undertaking) reached critical mass, and it seems all EU and affiliated member states, bar the UK (unsurprisingly), have or will sign on. The EuroHPC JU was born from a recognition that individual EU member states, and the EU as a whole, were significantly underinvesting in HPC compared to the US, China and Japan, who all have their own exascale investment and delivery strategies (NSCI, 13th 5 Year Plan, Post-K, etc). Read more…

By Dairsie Latimer

NERSC-9 Clues Found in NERSC 2017 Annual Report

October 8, 2018

If you’re eager to find out who’ll supply NERSC’s next-gen supercomputer, codenamed NERSC-9, here’s a project update to tide you over until the winning bid and system details are revealed. The upcoming system is referenced several times in the recently published 2017 NERSC annual report. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

TACC Wins Next NSF-funded Major Supercomputer

July 30, 2018

The Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) has won the next NSF-funded big supercomputer beating out rivals including the National Center for Supercomputing Ap Read more…

By John Russell

IBM at Hot Chips: What’s Next for Power

August 23, 2018

With processor, memory and networking technologies all racing to fill in for an ailing Moore’s law, the era of the heterogeneous datacenter is well underway, Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Requiem for a Phi: Knights Landing Discontinued

July 25, 2018

On Monday, Intel made public its end of life strategy for the Knights Landing "KNL" Phi product set. The announcement makes official what has already been wide Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

CERN Project Sees Orders-of-Magnitude Speedup with AI Approach

August 14, 2018

An award-winning effort at CERN has demonstrated potential to significantly change how the physics based modeling and simulation communities view machine learni Read more…

By Rob Farber

House Passes $1.275B National Quantum Initiative

September 17, 2018

Last Thursday the U.S. House of Representatives passed the National Quantum Initiative Act (NQIA) intended to accelerate quantum computing research and developm Read more…

By John Russell

Summit Supercomputer is Already Making its Mark on Science

September 20, 2018

Summit, now the fastest supercomputer in the world, is quickly making its mark in science – five of the six finalists just announced for the prestigious 2018 Read more…

By John Russell

New Deep Learning Algorithm Solves Rubik’s Cube

July 25, 2018

Solving (and attempting to solve) Rubik’s Cube has delighted millions of puzzle lovers since 1974 when the cube was invented by Hungarian sculptor and archite Read more…

By John Russell

AMD’s EPYC Road to Redemption in Six Slides

June 21, 2018

A year ago AMD returned to the server market with its EPYC processor line. The earth didn’t tremble but folks took notice. People remember the Opteron fondly Read more…

By John Russell

Leading Solution Providers

HPC on Wall Street 2018 Booth Video Tours Playlist

Arista

Dell EMC

IBM

Intel

RStor

VMWare

D-Wave Breaks New Ground in Quantum Simulation

July 16, 2018

Last Friday D-Wave scientists and colleagues published work in Science which they say represents the first fulfillment of Richard Feynman’s 1982 notion that Read more…

By John Russell

TACC’s ‘Frontera’ Supercomputer Expands Horizon for Extreme-Scale Science

August 29, 2018

The National Science Foundation and the Texas Advanced Computing Center announced today that a new system, called Frontera, will overtake Stampede 2 as the fast Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

HPE No. 1, IBM Surges, in ‘Bucking Bronco’ High Performance Server Market

September 27, 2018

Riding healthy U.S. and global economies, strong demand for AI-capable hardware and other tailwind trends, the high performance computing server market jumped 28 percent in the second quarter 2018 to $3.7 billion, up from $2.9 billion for the same period last year, according to industry analyst firm Hyperion Research. Read more…

By Doug Black

Intel Announces Cooper Lake, Advances AI Strategy

August 9, 2018

Intel's chief datacenter exec Navin Shenoy kicked off the company's Data-Centric Innovation Summit Wednesday, the day-long program devoted to Intel's datacenter Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

GPUs Power Five of World’s Top Seven Supercomputers

June 25, 2018

The top 10 echelon of the newly minted Top500 list boasts three powerful new systems with one common engine: the Nvidia Volta V100 general-purpose graphics proc Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Germany Celebrates Launch of Two Fastest Supercomputers

September 26, 2018

The new high-performance computer SuperMUC-NG at the Leibniz Supercomputing Center (LRZ) in Garching is the fastest computer in Germany and one of the fastest i Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

MLPerf – Will New Machine Learning Benchmark Help Propel AI Forward?

May 2, 2018

Let the AI benchmarking wars begin. Today, a diverse group from academia and industry – Google, Baidu, Intel, AMD, Harvard, and Stanford among them – releas Read more…

By John Russell

Aerodynamic Simulation Reveals Best Position in a Peloton of Cyclists

July 5, 2018

Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) and KU Leuven research group conducts the largest numerical simulation ever done in the sport industry and cycling discipline. The goal was to understand the aerodynamic interactions in the peloton, i.e., the main pack of cyclists in a race. Read more…

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