This was the email that set it off:

Hi Anand,

You have an appointment with Carrell Killebrew at 3pm tomorrow at ATI Santa Clara - he's going to give you the background on what REALLY went on behind 770. He'll meet you in the lobby on the 5th floor.

Chris

The email was from Chris Hook, PR at AMD, I’d worked with him for years and at ATI before the acquisition. I’ve always given him a hard time for trying to spin me, for doing a great job of hosting parties but a terrible job of putting me face to face with the brightest engineers.


Chris Hook seems terribly uninterested in whatever is coming out of my mouth at this dinner years ago :)

Lately Chris has been on a quest to prove me wrong. He gets that I don’t care about the parties or the exotic destinations that AMD usually hosts its press events at, I just want the product and the engineers. Earlier this year Chris let one engineer out of the bag and we had a great conversation about AMD’s manufacturing and packaging technologies (yeah, I’m a boring date). He gained a bit of trust with that interaction, so when he sent me the email above my ears perked.

I made my way back to ATI Santa Clara for the 3PM meeting and as I exited the elevator I heard “Anand?” from behind me. I didn’t recognize any of the men there but that’s not too unusual, in my old age remembering all of the faces is getting difficult, after all I’ve been doing this for nearly 12 years now. Thankfully this wasn’t one of those cases of forgotten identities, the man who I’d soon find out was Carrell Killebrew simply recognized me from a picture. What picture? I have no idea, perhaps AMD keeps pictures of Derek, Gary and myself on walls to know who to be angry at.

We walked around 30 feet into a small room with a table and some chairs, there was a speakerphone in the middle of the table. In the room was myself, Carrell Killebrew, Eric Demers, Mike Schmit and Mark Leather.

Most of these people I’d never met before, although I had heard their names. AMD, and ATI before the acquisition, had historically done a terrible job of giving us access to their smartest people. At best we’d get people in technical marketing, but very rarely the lead architects or any Fellows (read: certified genius title). That day however, on my day off, I found myself in a room with AMD Fellow after Fellow, smart guy after smart guy...and not a single member of AMD PR to muzzle the engineers.

To appreciate Carrell you have to understand that most of the people we talk to about GPUs are there to market us, and do so in a very markety tone. These briefings normally start out with some slides on the lay of the land, talking about how gaming is important, then there’s some architecture talk, a bit about the cards, some performance data that we don’t pay attention to and then a couple of conclusion slides. For a company that builds products that let you blow off peoples’ heads and watch the whole thing in greater fidelity, the way they talk to us about product is pretty lame.

Carrell, was different. Carrell Killebrew was the engineering lead on RV770, the GPU behind the Radeon HD 4800 series, and he was exactly the type of person you’d expect to be lead engineer on a product used to play video games, ridiculously fun, video games.

Carrell started the conversation off by saying that everything he was about to tell me would be on record, and he was assuming that no one had any objections to that. This was going to be good.

He asked me what I’d like to talk about and he offered some choices. We could talk about future GPU trends and architectures, we could talk about GPU accelerated video transcoding or he, along with the rest of the group, could give me the back story on RV770.

Carrell’s final option piqued my interest, I hadn’t really thought about it. When RV770 launched in the summer we took for granted that it was a great part, it upset NVIDIA’s pricing structure and gave us value at $200 and $300. We went through the architecture of the Radeon HD 4800 series and looked at performance, but I spent only a page or so talking about AMD’s small-die strategy that ultimately resulted in the RV770 GPU. AMD had spent much of the past 8 years building bigger and bigger GPUs yet with the RV770 AMD reversed the trend, and I didn’t even catch it. I casually mentioned it, talked about how it was a different approach than the one NVIDIA took, but I didn’t dig deeper.

Normally when a manufacturer like AMD tells me they did something, I ask why. When Intel introduced me to Nehalem’s cache architecture, I asked why and later published my findings. And for the most part, with every aspect of the Radeon HD 4800’s architecture, we did the same. Derek Wilson and I spent several hours on the phone and in emails back and forth with AMD trying to wrap our heads around the RV770’s architecture so that we could do it justice in our reviews. But both of us all but ignored the biggest part of RV770: the decision that led to making GPU itself.

This is a tough article for me to write, there are no graphs, no charts, no architecture to analyze. I simply got to sit in that room and listen as these individuals, these engineers shared with me over the course of two hours the past three years of their lives. I want to do it justice, and I hope that I can, because what they conveyed to me in that room was the best meeting I’d ever had with AMD or ATI.

The Beginning: The Shot Heard Around the World
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  • DerekWilson - Thursday, December 04, 2008 - link

    I'm glad you guys were able to stick to the plan an launch at the amazing prices you hit. It really shook up the industry and helped bring higher performance to lower price points. Now we just need the same thing to happen with integrated graphics.

    But seriously ... about those future architectures ... maybe you guys want to sit down and have another nice long chat? ;-)
    Reply
  • tygrus - Thursday, December 04, 2008 - link

    Choice A : Spend another 1B on a larger chip R&D, fab problems, low yields, high unit cost, potential delays, large dual-slot with space&cooling problems. Loose mid-range revenue potential, more R&D/time etc. to make half-size chip for mid-range.

    Choice B : Make the design to be price/power/performance efficient for very profitable mass-market. If you users want almost double the performance, buy 2 identical cards which saves on not producing a low volume BIG chip/card. (Though now we have 2 chips for X2 which still simplifies and reasonable efficient compared to a card design cramming a single BIG chip starved of bandwidth).
    Reply
  • CloudFire - Thursday, December 04, 2008 - link

    hands down one of the best, if not the best article i've ever read at anand. GREAT JOB! it shows how believing and getting back up when you're being beat down can get you where you want to be!

    for those people who took up the challenge to be different and change, imo are the true innovators who changes the world in the face of extreme adversity.
    Reply
  • Emperor88 - Thursday, December 04, 2008 - link

    Great artilce. There are precious few of these.

    Thanks a lot :)
    Reply
  • cowofdoom - Thursday, December 04, 2008 - link

    Long time reader, first time poster. Great article. I really think it says it all. Any time you get a chance to write articles like this I would love to see them. Great job. Reply
  • Emperor88 - Thursday, December 04, 2008 - link

    haha first time (wait second now) poster here as well. Best article I've read here. Reply
  • Barack Obama - Thursday, December 04, 2008 - link

    Keep it comin'! Reply
  • Boundless - Wednesday, December 03, 2008 - link

    Very nice article once again...helps reinforce my decision of keeping this place readily bookmarked since I first visited back in 2001. Reply
  • Regs - Wednesday, December 03, 2008 - link

    I want to know what AMD was thinking for those quite 3 years when they blew Prescott out of the water. Did they see Conroe coming? I think it's time for Anand to get on some black paint and go commando over there at AMD HQ. Reply
  • Cloudie - Wednesday, December 03, 2008 - link

    One of the best articles I've ever read. Kudos to Anand, and thanks to AMD (: Reply

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