Intel's Larrabee: More Than Just Graphics


Some of you might not think that this week's unveiling of Intel's Larrabee graphics processor architecture has anything to do with last week's post on parallel processing. But it does.


In fact, based on what Intel has released so far, it seems that the Larrabee chip will be the one to kick the parallel processing movement into high gear, with all of the disruption to enterprise systems and applications that go with it.


Intel has said it will issue a white paper next week at SIGGRAPH with detailed specs (here's the link where you should be able to find it); initial word is that the system will be based on the same short execution pipeline and cache structure of the Pentium, although it will also sport new advances like vector processing, multithreading and 64-bit extension technology.


The real key, though, is the fact that this is not just a GPU, according to Anand Lal Shimpi and Derek Wilson at Anandtech. It's a CPU, and a many-core CPU at that. Initial applications will involve implementing software libraries that allow the chip to emulate a GPU, but you can also do that with just about any other software renderer to run virtually any kind of application in parallel. Once that ball gets rolling, it will be a horse race to see who can overhaul their data centers, in both hardware and software, to take advantage of the tremendous leap in computational power that parallelism offers.


Still, Larrabee's impact on the graphics industry should not be overlooked entirely. One of the chief advantages is that it will allow developers to use standard x86 instruction sets and the widely used C and C++ languages. This runs counter to Nvidia, which is trying to foster the Compute Unified Device Architecture (CUDA) language for its Tesla 10 devices, and AMD's ATI division, which has been building on the open source CL language.


Another angle to all this is how Larrabee will affect Intel's relationship with Apple. Rumors have been circulating the Apple is showing interest in Nvidia and AMD technology, but as it happens, the initial Larrabee products will hit the market in mid-2009, just as the new Snow Leopard OS, which is said to have a heavy reliance on cooperative multitasking, is due.


As I mentioned in last week's post, parallel processing is likely to have a major effect on the way the enterprise is run, affecting everything from cloud computing to data warehousing. Intel has been kind enough to offer a heads up on how it plans to use parallelism for graphics next year, but don't expect it to take long for savvy developers to push it into other areas.