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!

SC17 Student Cluster Competition Configurations: Fewer Nodes, Way More Accelerators

November 16, 2017

The final configurations for each of the SC17 “Donnybrook in Denver” Student Cluster Competition have been released. Fortunately, each team received their equipment shipments on time and undamaged, so the teams are r Read more…

By Dan Olds

Student Clusterers Demolish HPCG Record! Nanyang Sweeps Benchmarks

November 16, 2017

Nanyang pulled off the always difficult double-play at this year’s SC Student Cluster Competition. The plucky team from Singapore posted a world record LINPACK, thus taking the Highest LINPACK Award, but also managed t Read more…

By Dan Olds

Student Cluster LINPACK Record Shattered! More LINs Packed Than Ever before!

November 16, 2017

Nanyang Technological University, the pride of Singapore, utterly destroyed the Student Cluster Competition LINPACK record by posting a score of 51.77 TFlop/s at SC17 in Denver. The previous record, established by German Read more…

By Dan Olds

HPE Extreme Performance Solutions

Harness Scalable Petabyte Storage with HPE Apollo 4510 and HPE StoreEver

As a growing number of connected devices challenges IT departments to rapidly collect, manage, and store troves of data, organizations must adopt a new generation of IT to help them operate quickly and intelligently. Read more…

Hyperion Market Update: ‘Decent’ Growth Led by HPE; AI Transparency a Risk Issue

November 15, 2017

The HPC market update from Hyperion Research (formerly IDC) at the annual SC conference is a business and social “must,” and this year’s presentation at SC17 played to a SRO crowd at a downtown Denver hotel. This w Read more…

By Doug Black

SC17 Student Cluster Competition Configurations: Fewer Nodes, Way More Accelerators

November 16, 2017

The final configurations for each of the SC17 “Donnybrook in Denver” Student Cluster Competition have been released. Fortunately, each team received their e Read more…

By Dan Olds

Student Clusterers Demolish HPCG Record! Nanyang Sweeps Benchmarks

November 16, 2017

Nanyang pulled off the always difficult double-play at this year’s SC Student Cluster Competition. The plucky team from Singapore posted a world record LINPAC Read more…

By Dan Olds

Student Cluster LINPACK Record Shattered! More LINs Packed Than Ever before!

November 16, 2017

Nanyang Technological University, the pride of Singapore, utterly destroyed the Student Cluster Competition LINPACK record by posting a score of 51.77 TFlop/s a Read more…

By Dan Olds

Hyperion Market Update: ‘Decent’ Growth Led by HPE; AI Transparency a Risk Issue

November 15, 2017

The HPC market update from Hyperion Research (formerly IDC) at the annual SC conference is a business and social “must,” and this year’s presentation at S Read more…

By Doug Black

2017 Student Cluster Competition Benchmarks, Workloads, and Pre-Planned Disasters

November 15, 2017

The students competing in the 2017 Student Cluster Competition in Denver are facing a grueling 48 hour marathon of HPC benchmarks and real scientific applicatio Read more…

By Dan Olds

Nvidia Focuses Its Cloud Containers on HPC Applications

November 14, 2017

Having migrated its top-of-the-line datacenter GPU to the largest cloud vendors, Nvidia is touting its Volta architecture for a range of scientific computing ta Read more…

By George Leopold

HPE Launches ARM-based Apollo System for HPC, AI

November 14, 2017

HPE doubled down on its memory-driven computing vision while expanding its processor portfolio with the announcement yesterday of the company’s first ARM-base Read more…

By Doug Black

OpenACC Shines in Global Climate/Weather Codes

November 14, 2017

OpenACC, the directive-based parallel programming model used mostly for porting codes to GPUs for use on heterogeneous systems, came to SC17 touting impressive Read more…

By John Russell

US Coalesces Plans for First Exascale Supercomputer: Aurora in 2021

September 27, 2017

At the Advanced Scientific Computing Advisory Committee (ASCAC) meeting, in Arlington, Va., yesterday (Sept. 26), it was revealed that the "Aurora" supercompute Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

NERSC Scales Scientific Deep Learning to 15 Petaflops

August 28, 2017

A collaborative effort between Intel, NERSC and Stanford has delivered the first 15-petaflops deep learning software running on HPC platforms and is, according Read more…

By Rob Farber

Oracle Layoffs Reportedly Hit SPARC and Solaris Hard

September 7, 2017

Oracle’s latest layoffs have many wondering if this is the end of the line for the SPARC processor and Solaris OS development. As reported by multiple sources Read more…

By John Russell

Nvidia Responds to Google TPU Benchmarking

April 10, 2017

Nvidia highlights strengths of its newest GPU silicon in response to Google's report on the performance and energy advantages of its custom tensor processor. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Google Releases Deeplearn.js to Further Democratize Machine Learning

August 17, 2017

Spreading the use of machine learning tools is one of the goals of Google’s PAIR (People + AI Research) initiative, which was introduced in early July. Last w Read more…

By John Russell

GlobalFoundries Puts Wind in AMD’s Sails with 12nm FinFET

September 24, 2017

From its annual tech conference last week (Sept. 20), where GlobalFoundries welcomed more than 600 semiconductor professionals (reaching the Santa Clara venue Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Graphcore Readies Launch of 16nm Colossus-IPU Chip

July 20, 2017

A second $30 million funding round for U.K. AI chip developer Graphcore sets up the company to go to market with its “intelligent processing unit” (IPU) in Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Amazon Debuts New AMD-based GPU Instances for Graphics Acceleration

September 12, 2017

Last week Amazon Web Services (AWS) streaming service, AppStream 2.0, introduced a new GPU instance called Graphics Design intended to accelerate graphics. The Read more…

By John Russell

Leading Solution Providers

Reinders: “AVX-512 May Be a Hidden Gem” in Intel Xeon Scalable Processors

June 29, 2017

Imagine if we could use vector processing on something other than just floating point problems.  Today, GPUs and CPUs work tirelessly to accelerate algorithms Read more…

By James Reinders

EU Funds 20 Million Euro ARM+FPGA Exascale Project

September 7, 2017

At the Barcelona Supercomputer Centre on Wednesday (Sept. 6), 16 partners gathered to launch the EuroEXA project, which invests €20 million over three-and-a-half years into exascale-focused research and development. Led by the Horizon 2020 program, EuroEXA picks up the banner of a triad of partner projects — ExaNeSt, EcoScale and ExaNoDe — building on their work... Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Delays, Smoke, Records & Markets – A Candid Conversation with Cray CEO Peter Ungaro

October 5, 2017

Earlier this month, Tom Tabor, publisher of HPCwire and I had a very personal conversation with Cray CEO Peter Ungaro. Cray has been on something of a Cinderell Read more…

By Tiffany Trader & Tom Tabor

Cray Moves to Acquire the Seagate ClusterStor Line

July 28, 2017

This week Cray announced that it is picking up Seagate's ClusterStor HPC storage array business for an undisclosed sum. "In short we're effectively transitioning the bulk of the ClusterStor product line to Cray," said CEO Peter Ungaro. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Intel Launches Software Tools to Ease FPGA Programming

September 5, 2017

Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs) have a reputation for being difficult to program, requiring expertise in specialty languages, like Verilog or VHDL. Easin Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

HPC Chips – A Veritable Smorgasbord?

October 10, 2017

For the first time since AMD's ill-fated launch of Bulldozer the answer to the question, 'Which CPU will be in my next HPC system?' doesn't have to be 'Whichever variety of Intel Xeon E5 they are selling when we procure'. Read more…

By Dairsie Latimer

IBM Advances Web-based Quantum Programming

September 5, 2017

IBM Research is pairing its Jupyter-based Data Science Experience notebook environment with its cloud-based quantum computer, IBM Q, in hopes of encouraging a new class of entrepreneurial user to solve intractable problems that even exceed the capabilities of the best AI systems. Read more…

By Alex Woodie

How ‘Knights Mill’ Gets Its Deep Learning Flops

June 22, 2017

Intel, the subject of much speculation regarding the delayed, rewritten or potentially canceled “Aurora” contract (the Argonne Lab part of the CORAL “ Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

  • arrow
  • Click Here for More Headlines
  • arrow
Share This