Revealed: Intel's multicore graphics processor

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Revealed: Intel's multicore graphics processor

Post by win2k8man »

Mention "Intel" and "graphics" in the same breath and the immediate association is, well, a bit on the soft side. "Soft", like the feeling of planting your foot on something a friendly dog has left on the pavement.

Regardless of Intel's rhetoric every time it releases a GPU ("it really can play games well this time, guys!"), their graphics chips are still nothing compared with a discrete chunk of GPU processing power backed by its own dedicated slab of memory with ten times the bandwidth, and all brought to bear on the singular task of pumping out the pixels.

Ironically, despite Intel's lowly performance in gaming graphics or even Vista's Aero interface in many laptops, there's no argument that Intel is the biggest graphics chipset maker on the market today. Its graphic chips are built into many more PCs than either NVIDIA or ATI.

However, Intel seems to be getting serious about graphics. Really serious. Company veeps today started to join the dots on its project known as Larrabee, which has previously been little more than a handful of hints and the broadest of brushstrokes.

Most significantly, Larrabee will be constructed using an array of 45nm x86 multi-threading cores. These are not full-blown Penryn-class engines but simplified cores that have been tweaked for graphics.

"Onto each core we've added a vector processing unit, and we're extending the instruction set to include vector operations" to improve the performance of intensive graphics and video applications explained Stephen Smith, Intel VP and director of the Digital Enterprise Group.

The cores are all parked behind a slab of shared Level 2 cache and fed through a pair of integrated memory controllers. But how many cores are there? Smith didn't cite a number, but a previously leaked presentation suggested anywhere from 16 to 24 cores and a total clock speed from 1.7GHz to 2.5GHz.

The array of off-the-shelf IA cores not not only gives Larrabee exceptional grunt, it also makes it easier for developers to write for the chip. "We've been pleasantly surprised at the enthusiasm of game developers, both the people who build engines and the people who build games" said Smith. "They can use standard interfaces for traditional games in the PC environment, but the real creativity comes when they begin to figue out how to use the computational capabilities of Larrabee".

Those ‘computational capabilities' are what Intel hopes will set Larrabee apart from the rest of the GPU pack in the shift towards what it describes as ‘visual computing' that requires immense amounts of real-time graphics processing power.

"In the last decade or two, graphics on the PC has been about building triangles or rasterisation against a model, and so we've built chips to suit" Smith explains. "They're very good at one thing, which is the triangle-based rendering of mainstream graphics."

But Smith believes that the world of graphics is about to get not only more complex but to head off in a very different direction.

"We see that entertainment, productivity applications, the user interface and the Internet will move to a new kind of visual implementation that's more lifelike."

"For example, you may have several objects - a translucent object, a highly reflective object, a diffusive object - and each will react to light from the same source in different ways. To get this visual computing experience we're going to need to not only render the graphic images but have a computational-based model, a physics-based model, as the basis for this."

Smith cites some practical examples as being real-time interactive medical imaging and seismic analysis of data in the oil and gas industry in order to quickly and accurately visualise the underlying rock strata.

Oh, and superfast 3D rendering for games, so you can see realistic ray-traced effects plus bits of bodies flying around. Intel expects to demonstrate Larrabbee later this year, with a release date slated for late 2009 to early 2010. ... _processor