The Call

My love/hate relationship with AMD PR continued last year. But lately, it’s been far less hate. Let’s rewind back to the Summer of 2009. I’d been waiting for AMD to call for weeks.

We all knew that the RV870 was going to launch sometime before the end of the year, and we’re normally briefed on new GPUs around a month or so before we get hardware. The rumors said that the launch had been pushed back, but just like clockwork I got a call in June or July of last year. It was my old friend, Chris Hook of AMD PR.

This time he wanted me to come to a press event on a carrier off the coast of California. Sigh.

It’s not that I have anything against carriers. It’s just that all I cared about at that time was the long awaited successor to the RV770. The RV770 was the GPU that unequivocally restored my faith in ATI graphics, an impact shared by others last June. But that’s not how the game is played I’m afraid. AMD promises its management and its partners that they can fill a room (or carrier) up with important press. We get promised access to engineers, useful information and free drinks.


The USS Hornet. GPUs are in there.

I’m not easily swayed by free drinks, but Chris Hook knows me well enough by now to know what I’d appreciate even more.

The Dinner - September 2009

I had to leave dinner earlier than I wanted to. ASUS’ Chairman Jonney Shih was in town and only had one opportunity to meet me before I left Oakland. Whenever either of us happens to be in the same town, we always make our best effort to meet - and I wasn’t going to let him down. In the same vein that Steve Jobs is successful because he is a product guy at heart, running a company best known for its products. Jonney Shih is an engineer at heart, and he runs a company who has always been known for their excellence in engineering. This wasn’t just another meeting with an executive, this was a meeting with someone who has a passion for the same things I do. His focus isn’t on making money, it’s on engineering. It’s a rare treat.

My ride was waiting outside. I closed the lid on my laptop, making sure to save the 13 pages of notes I just took while at dinner. And I shook this man’s hand:

Before I left he asked me to do one thing. He said “Try not to make the story about me. There are tons of hardworking engineers that really made this chip happen”. Like Jonney, Carrell Killebrew has his own combination of traits that make him completely unique in this industry. All of the greats are like that. They’ve all got their own history that brought them to the companies that they work for today, and they have their own sets of personality traits that when combined make them so unique. For Carrell Killebrew it's a mixture of intelligence, pragmatism, passion and humility that's very rare to see. He's also a genuinely good guy. One of his tenets is that you should always expect the best from others. If you expect any less than the best, that’s all you’ll ever get from them. It’s a positive take on people, one that surprisingly enough only burned Carrell once. Perhaps he’s more fortunate than most.

Mr. Killebrew didn’t make the RV870, but he was beyond instrumental in making sure it was a success. What follows is a small portion of the story of the RV870, the GPU behind the Radeon HD 5800 series. I call it a small portion of the story because despite this article using more than eight thousand words to tell it, the actual story took place over years and in the minds and work of hundreds of engineers. This GPU, like all others (even Fermi) is the lifework of some of the best engineers in the industry. They are the heroes of our industry, and I hope I can do their story justice.

As is usually the case with these GPU backstories, to understand why things unfolded the way they did we have to look back a few years. Introducing a brand new GPU can take 2 - 4 years from start to finish. Thus to understand the origins of the Radeon HD 5800 series (RV870) we have to look back to 2005.

Sidebar on Naming

AMD PR really doesn’t like it when I use the name RV870. With this last generation of GPUs, AMD wanted to move away from its traditional naming. According to AMD, there is no GPU called the RV870, despite the fact that Carrell Killebrew, Eric Demers and numerous others referred to it as such over the past couple of years. As with most drastic changes, it usually takes a while for these things to sink in. I’ve also heard reference to an RV870 jar - think of it as a swear jar but for each time someone calls Cypress an RV870.

Why the change? Well, giving each member of a GPU family a name helps confuse the competition. It’s easy to know that RV870 is the successor to the RV770. It’s harder to tell exactly what a Cypress is.

AMD PR would rather me refer to RV870 and the subject of today’s story as Cypress. The chart below shows AMD’s full listing of codenames for the 40nm DX11 GPU lineup:

GPU Codename
ATI Radeon HD 5900 Series Hemlock
ATI Radeon HD 5800 Series Cypress
ATI Radeon HD 5700 Series Juniper
ATI Radeon HD 5600/5500 Series Redwood
ATI Radeon HD 5400 Series Cedar

 

Given that we still haven’t purged the RVxxx naming from our vocabulary, I’m going to stick with RV870 for this story. But for those of you who have embraced the new nomenclature - RV870 = Cypress and at points I will use the two names interchangeably. The entire chip stack is called Evergreen. The replacement stack is called the Northern Islands.

The Best Way to Lose a Fight - How R5xx Changed ATI
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  • wlee15 - Sunday, February 14, 2010 - link

    The USS Hornet is a carrier not a battleship.
    For shame Anand For Shame!
    Reply
  • Anand Lal Shimpi - Monday, February 15, 2010 - link

    wow - you're totally right, I can't believe I made that mistake. Looks like Ryan or Jarred caught it shortly after it went live though, whew :)

    And yes, for the record, I know the difference between an aircraft carrier and a battleship :)

    Take care,
    Anand
    Reply
  • just4U - Tuesday, February 16, 2010 - link

    LIES!!!!

    (hah)
    Reply
  • Sahrin - Sunday, February 14, 2010 - link

    Thank you - I was worried I'd be the only one to point this one out.

    Thank you Anand! This stuff is incredible. Just a few weeks ago I was looking back on the RV770 article and wishing it could be done again.

    Kudos as well are due to AMD's PR guys - for having the courage to let the engineers sit down with the press, instead of needing to be there as minders. I guarantee you that every single time, the same story told by a marketer of a product and by the guy whose passion created the product will be a thousand times more effectively conveyed by the engineer. Marketers have value - I'm not trying to write them off.

    I don't know what I can do for AT and AMD to thank them for making articles like this happen. Aside from buying Cypress and being a reader - but if there is anything we can do to ensure these articles keep coming (bombard Meyer with Faxes?) let me be the first to sign up. (And maybe if we could get access to AMD's CPU guys as well, to provide a balance to the excellent information we get from Intel).
    Reply
  • Dianoda - Sunday, February 14, 2010 - link

    This article was a real treat, keep 'em coming... Reply
  • dzx - Monday, February 22, 2010 - link

    I created an account just to give thanks for such a well written, informative article. I can sense you have just as much passion for the technology as the engineers and architects who create it. Simply a pleasure to read. Reply
  • gralex - Friday, February 26, 2010 - link

    Thanx. I have nothing more to add that hasn't been said already in the above comments, just thanks.

    As for ATI vs. NVIDIA, maybe i'm believing the hype but AMD seems awfully conservative at the moment. It's totally working for them, of course, but I'm liking the whole CUDA, Tegra2, Ion, Optimus momentum Nvidia might finally be gaining right now. Obviously they messed it up with a ton of rebranding making a 5xxx purchase a no-brainer right now... I just LOVE the way Nvidia was looking cornered and thought up a number of ways to get out. I hope these two keep up the healthy rivalry for many years to come, for ALL of us:-)
    Reply
  • phaxmohdem - Sunday, February 14, 2010 - link

    Wow. This was perhaps the first article I've read in a long time I read cover-to-cover, and couldn't put down. AT is my favorite tech review site, but I find myself reading the first two pages or so, skipping around to various benchmark pages, then reading the summary. This piece was remarkably intriguing and thought provoking. I look forward to the RV970 story, or perhaps better yet, the GF100 story.

    Keep em coming!
    Reply
  • gimmeausername - Sunday, February 14, 2010 - link

    Did you just say RV970?

    I think you've just made some folks at AMD flip out by using that code name. :D
    Reply
  • coolhardware - Sunday, February 14, 2010 - link

    As others have mentioned, articles like this one really put Anandtech head and shoulders above the competition. It is so very interesting to find out the real world story behind the video cards. What a wonderful Valentine's Day treat :-).

    Thanks for all your hard work Anand, I really appreciate it!
    Reply

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