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.

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