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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  • n7 - Sunday, February 14, 2010 - link

    Another great story told.

    Thanx, Anand.
    Reply
  • MrK6 - Sunday, February 14, 2010 - link

    What a great piece. Thank you for taking the time to put this together; it's one of the best tech articles I've read. Reply
  • archcommus - Sunday, February 14, 2010 - link

    Haven't even read the whole thing yet but I can already say this is excellent. Thank you, Anand. Reply
  • indicator - Sunday, February 14, 2010 - link

    Hi all
    I felt I had to register here after reading this article , what a fantastic insight into everything that goes into making these GPU's and the dedication and talent it takes to be so creative.
    Great to see Anands enthusiasm for the industry come across in the article too
    I've been coming here and reading Anandtech since around the mid ninties I guess , it is a superb source of information , I look forward to every new article/review posted.
    Keep it up guys

    Lee
    (uk)
    Reply
  • d3x7r0 - Sunday, February 14, 2010 - link

    Very very good article as usual in this website. AnandTech has been one of my favourite sites in the area for so long I don't even remember how I found out about the website, I actually believe I was still in 56k when I first came here.

    Anyway reading this article made me speculate on something (and please correct me if I'm wrong): If I got the timings right AMD-ATI should be working on the Northern Islands since the Radeon HD4xxx series days so the same issues they had with the HD5xxx series would be in the past. If this is true it means they know the HD4xxx were a success from the beginning of the process (or near it) and as such I can't but help it be even more excited to see what the next generation of ATI cards has in store.

    It's such a good time to be an ATI fan it's not even funny :D
    Reply
  • Atlantis6000bc - Sunday, February 14, 2010 - link

    Those kind of article are the prime reason why I keep coming back to Anand....keep 'em coming
    Reply
  • The13thWizard - Sunday, February 14, 2010 - link

    Thanks Anand! Thats the best IT article Ive ever read! Very toughtfull and interesting! Reply
  • arnavvdesai - Sunday, February 14, 2010 - link

    Really helps understand the industry a lot more. I really wish AMD would take a cue from its graphics division and really start hammering out what kind of chips do they want to build. However, they have their own set of challenges as Intel unlike NVIDIA is really really good on the foundry side as well.
    However, with gaming becoming more and more centered on consoles, does ATi have something cooking for the next generation of consoles? Would love Anand to ask them something about that. Do they believe that they will continue to sell enough cards to continue recouping their costs of designing and manufacturing them.
    Reply
  • Vishnu Narayanan S - Sunday, February 14, 2010 - link

    First of all, hats off to you for this amazing article.... Its these articles that bind us to the Anandtech website for years and years.

    I sincerely hope and request you to provide similar in-depth and "behind the scenes" stories from NVIDIA and Intel. Just to satisfy the FANbois... lol
    Reply
  • fausto412 - Sunday, February 14, 2010 - link

    once i started reading i couldn't stop. for a geek like me this was almost like sex:) keep them coming! Reply

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