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Larrabee canceled: Intel concedes discrete graphics to NVIDIA, AMD...for now

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Manufacturer: Intel
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Late week announcement made

If you read PC Perspective or listen to our wildly popular podcast, you have heard the name "Larrabee" pop up more than its fair share.  That was the codename for the project Intel announced way back in February 2007that's goal was to compete with the likes of NVIDIA and ATI in the
world of discrete graphics.  Intel's direction was somewhat
revolutionary for a GPU in that it was going to use many small, but
standard, x86 cores with custom vector processing units rather than
traditional GPU shaders and depend on a dedicated software stack to
make it all work. 

In August of 2008 we got our first juicy details about the
architecture, how it would, what the software engineers had to
undertake, etc.  The architectural preview we posted then will probably be of great interest to you, even today, so be sure to check it out. 



An early diagram of Larrabee
The
highlights of the architecture included IA x86 cores with additional
vector units, dedicated hardware for texturing (the only real dedicated
GPU hardware on the chip), a large L2 cache and a ring bus memory
controller.  We never got much more detail than this, even as months
turned into years: nothing on core counts, frequencies, performance -
nada.

So today's announcement was not SO surprising.  To be fair, Intel is not canceling the entire Larrabee project,
they are just basically admitting that the first iteration of this
architecture was not going to be released in any retail form.  That
means the chip will be relegated to power internal development systems
at Intel and some trusted software partners machines as well to pave
the way for future many-core software development.  If you were excited
about the prospect of getting 48 x86 cores on an add-in card for your
computer, you'll be waiting quite a bit longer now.



Former Intel Exec Pat Gelsinger holding up a Larrabee wafer

With
Intel officially calling this a "delay" rather than a scrubbing of the
entire idea, we have to wonder WHAT would cause Intel to admit defeat
now?  There are only a couple of possible reasons: hardware or
software.  The hardware could quite simply just not have been fast
enough and reasonable power levels for a consumer product.  Would Intel
need more efficient x86 cores or did they realize too late that they
needed more cores than they could fit on a die with today's process
technology?  The software was also mind-numbingly complex: creating a
software renderer that would be backwards compatible with DX9/10/11
software and convert it to x86-ready code while being much more
efficient than any other software renderer has been to date.  Did
Intel's software team just over promise and under deliver when it came
down to crunch time?



Intel
is trying to do what 3DLabs attempted with the P10 all those years
back.  A fully programmable rendering pipeline.  AMD and NVIDIA
currently use the DX8-DX10 style pipeline with programmable portions
sandwiched between fixed function units (which is not necessarily a bad
thing when talking about performance in these apps).

There
are all questions that of course Intel wouldn't reply to - only that a
combination of hardware and software concerns caused Intel to delay the
Larrabee project as a consumer product until sometime in the future. 
You will likely hear NOTHING from Intel about this project until they
have a firm grasp on the situation - it was the mouth of a former Intel
exec that promised to "beat the GPU guys at their own game" that raised
expectations to a fever pitch very early.  Obviously too early.  I
wouldn't expect to hear anything until IDF of 2010 - if even then.

 

Single Larrabee core diagram

There a couple of groups really loving this news: NVIDIA and AMD. 
Both of these companies have to be letting out a big sigh of relief
knowing that Intel has officially gone back into caves of the graphics
world for at least another couple of years.  For AMD that means that
Intel will have no way to compete with Fusion (GPU + CPU) products for
quite some time and for NVIDIA, well, you have another span of time
where you don't have the largest chip designer in the world breathing
down your neck. 

Intel demoed Larrabee for the first time at IDF in September 2009

Another interesting note about the Larrabee issues and the recently discussed Intel 48-core Single-chip Cloud Computing CPU:
according to Intel the two are completely unrelated, despite the
similarities at first glance.  Even though they are both many-core
processor designs the real goal of the SCC chip was to test Intel's
theories on inter-chip mesh communications and working with a
multi-core CPU without a shared cache structure.  Apparently all they
had in common was an x86 core based architecture.

Are we disappointed?  Absolutely.  But am I completely shocked? 
Not really.  Intel always had an uphill battle to compete with NVIDIA
and AMD in the GPU world and the delays of the Larrabee design put them
so far behind that they would have likely never caught up to the
performance of the Evergreen or Fermi families from their competition. 
Knowing that, it was probably the better choice to admit defeat and go
back to the drawing board rather than release a part that simply
couldn't hold its own in such a competitive market.  We had always
given Intel the benefit of the doubt when it came to the company's
ability to create a completely new GPU architecture and re-engineer the
software stack for graphics as well - but it seems now that we have
been fooled.  "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me - you can't get
fooled again..."

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