After a long period of speculation and drought of information, Intel has finally opened the information gates wider with some tangible details of how the Larrabee discreet graphics project will manifest itself.
The move was always considered significant, mainly because of the vast sums of money Intel will be able to support the push with. But with the firm now fleshing out details of how it will take the emphasis away from the hardware, instead running the main processes of discreet graphics – rasterisation, pixel shading, rendering etc – through software, the potential for industry-wide change could be considered even more potent.
Currently, the bulk of the information announced relates to this new architecture itself, as opposed to the actual product that Larrabee will eventually become. It’s this programming flexibility provided by the architecture that Intel thinks will be one of the main advantages of its platform.
"One of the key things that Larrabee architecture gives games companies is a tremendous amount of additional flexibility and programmability – things that they’ve been asking for many years," Intel’s manager of the EMEA visual computing group Aaron Coday tells PC Retail. "And that provides them with the ability to do things, and innovate in very different ways, than they’ve been able to before. First and foremost is going to be a very strong graphics and throughput architecture, and it’ll provide all of that through Direct X and Open GL. The majority of games and usage of Larrabee architecture will be through that; there will be a smaller percentage of games developers that are going to go out and innovate on top of what we provided, through what we call the Larrabee native interface."
Intel believes this new flexible approach and emphasis on software brings graphics processing round full circle in terms of how it has been developed since the advent of 3D graphics, and will open up all sorts of doors that the current key players can’t open.
"What Larrabee does provide developers with is the flexibility they have been asking for. It allows them to do things that have been difficult to do – or impossible to do – with traditional GPU solutions," continues Coday. "I think for software developers its one of the bigger inflection points, in terms of programming for gaming and graphics.
Graphics used to be – before we had graphics accelerators – completely leaned on CPUs. And it was completely flexible – people decided they wanted to do rasterisation, they wanted to do ray tracing, they wanted to global illumination, but during that time all those graphics were not real-time.
The processors were too slow and the algorithms were so complex that you couldn’t do it in real-time. With the push to get graphics towards real-time, came hardware accelerators. But in order to make hardware accelerators work and get real-time graphics, they made a lot of concessions. They implemented a fixed function pipeline.
So they said ‘okay, rasterisation has to happen this way, texture look up has to happen this way, shading has to happen this way’. But since then the standard have evolved to add more and more levels of programmability, with pixel shading etc. And now we think Larrabee allows us to come full circle and have complete programmability."
This all sounds convincing enough – however, there is the little obstacle of Nvidia and AMD/ATi. While often taking chunks out of each other in the press, these two firms have dominated the discreet graphics market for years – some have described them as a duopoly – and they won’t be giving up market share without a fight.
One of the key things Nvidia stressed to us in an interview back in June, was the fact its strong position in the sector and the relationships it has forged with games developers (asserting they would have to have a very good reason to start coding to a different set of rules than they have been for years) will make it tough for Intel to muscle in, despite any wedge put behind an attempt to do so.
This strength hasn’t gone unnoticed by Intel, with Coday stating close relations with developers as key to breaking into a market currently 98 per cent owned by Nvidia and AMD/ATi, and also stresses that while discreet graphics will be a new venture for Intel, it is certainly no stranger to the graphics world in general.
"I think a big part of that is that we’ve been working with a lot of game developers. All of the input and design of Larrabee comes with the involvement of various software firms in the industry. It’s very much driven by feedback from the industry telling us the types of thing they would like to do, and how can they do them. We’ve tried to incorporate that.
That 98 per cent is where Larrabee is targeted. And we are not new to the graphics market either. We are the biggest graphics vendor of this planet, most of the graphics components out there are Intel integrated graphics. Obviously your right, if you look to the graphics discreet market it is them, but it’s not that we’re entirely new to this world."
Weapon of choice
While Intel may concur with Nvidia that relationships with games developers are key, unsurprisingly it doesn’t agree with recent assertions by the graphic specialist that the time of CPU development is coming to an end. Nvidia’s Roy Taylor, vice president of content and developer relations recently likened the CPU landscape to that of the soundcard market several years ago, in that they are now basically as good as they’ll ever need to be and further development is pointless. When asked his opinion on whether future evolution of the computer will be based more on technologies such as discreet graphics and parallel architecture, rather than CPU development, Coday responds:
"This is a highly unlikely scenario. The CPU remains, and is likely to remain, a very important part of the PC platform and current usage models suggest that the content-rich web, both in terms of the creation and consumption of media illustrate a clear need for a powerful CPU.
"High definition Flash video playback for example uses a lot of CPU power for just that one task, so in a multi-tasking scenario it becomes even more relevant. Similarly, with content creation – a lot of the work is done on the CPU and this trend looks set to continue for some time, with CPUs offering more cores and more threads. It also true to say that it is not a case of one or two components that make up the development of the PC.
"Developing a balanced PC is about making sure that there are no – or at least as few as possible – bottlenecks within the system. Finally, there is the software ecosystem to consider: there’s a huge and established software environment for today’s CPUs and that this is why they are and will remain so popular," concluded Coday.