What Took So Long?

AMD announced the acquisition of ATI in 2006. By 2007 AMD had a plan for CPU/GPU integration and it looked like this. The red blocks in the diagram below were GPUs, the green blocks were CPUs. Stage 1 was supposed to be dumb integration of the two (putting a CPU and GPU on the same die). The original plan called for AMD to release the first Fusion APU to come out sometime in 2008—2009. Of course that didn't happen.

Brazos, AMD's very first Fusion platform, came out in Q4 of last year. At best AMD was two years behind schedule, at worst three. So what happened?

AMD and ATI both knew that designing CPUs and GPUs were incredibly different. CPUs, at least for AMD back then, were built on a five year architecture cadence. Designers used tons of custom logic and hand layout in order to optimize for clock speed. In a general purpose microprocessor instruction latency is everything, so optimizing to lower latency wherever possible was top priority.

GPUs on the other hand come from a very different world. Drastically new architectures ship every two years, with major introductions made yearly. Very little custom logic is employed in GPU design by comparison; the architectures are highly synthesizable. Clock speed is important but it's not the end all be all. GPUs get their performance from being massively parallel, and you can always hide latency with a wide enough machine (and a parallel workload to take advantage of it).

The manufacturing strategy is also very different. Remember that at the time of the ATI acquisition, only ATI was a fabless semiconductor—AMD still owned its own fabs. ATI was used to building chips at TSMC, while AMD was fabbing everything in Dresden at what would eventually become GlobalFoundries. While the folks at GlobalFoundries have done their best to make their libraries portable for existing TSMC customers, it's not as simple as showing up with a chip design and having it work on the first go.

As much sense as AMD made when it talked about the acquisition, the two companies that came together in 2006 couldn't have been more different. The past five years have really been spent trying to make the two work together both as organizations as well as architectures.

The result really holds a lot of potential and hope for the new, unified AMD. The CPU folks learn from the GPU folks and vice versa. Let's start with APU refresh cycles. AMD CPU architectures were updated once every four or five years (K7 1999, K8 2003, K10 2007) while ATI GPUs received substantial updates yearly. The GPU folks won this battle as all AMD APUs are now built on a yearly cadence.

Chip design is also now more GPU inspired. With a yearly design cadence there's a greater focus on building easily synthesizable chips. Time to design and manufacture goes down, but so do maximum clock speeds. Given how important clock speed can be to the x86 side of the business, AMD is going to be taking more of a hybrid approach where some elements of APU designs are built the old GPU way while others use custom logic and more CPU-like layout flows.

The past few years have been very difficult for AMD but we're at the beginning of what may be a brand new company. Without the burden of expensive fabs and with the combined knowledge of two great chip companies, the new AMD has a chance but it also has a very long road ahead. Brazos was the first hint of success along that road and today we have the second. Her name is Llano.

The Llano A-Series APU
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  • Dustin Sklavos - Tuesday, June 14, 2011 - link

    I disagree emphatically. Having used Atom-based and E-350-based netbooks (and let's not kid ourselves, the E-350 is a netbook chip), the E-350 machines just feel snappier. I'd never buy an Atom-based computer, but I love the E-350. Reply
  • ppeterka - Tuesday, June 14, 2011 - link

    Absolutely agree with Dustin... Recently bought an E-350 to replace my wife's painfully struggling Atom n455 netbook. The user experience went through the roof. My wife is happier than ever (and that's a very good thing, and a very good benchmark! :))) )

    She is a "not-professional-but-quite-demanding" user. (20-30 browser tabs, Office, and video streaming at once, Twitter with multiple accounts, and so on). She used to have a C2D T6600 + GeForce 310 (or 210 , don't exactly remember) Toshiba notebook too, but since we acquired the Brazos one, she didn't turn the old one on. Have to sell it now...

    I know, Brazos is weak if compared to anything other than Atom. But magically it manages to absolutely fill its role. Hats off to AMD on that one!
    Reply
  • Broheim - Tuesday, June 14, 2011 - link

    I wouldn't describe your wife as a "quite demanding" user.
    Browser tabs don't take up CPU cycles once loaded (unless the page uses AJAX, and even then a simple http request isn't a daunting task even for a 20 year old processor) and only uses a little bit of memory.
    I'd call MS Office pretty basic computer usage .
    today video decoding is almost always hardware accelerated, so most of the work is offloaded onto the GPU (where E-350 has the upper hand).
    but I digress.

    just look at the benchmarks, there isn't much of a difference between the E-350 and a D525 (or similar) in CPU intensive tasks...
    any percieved "snappiness" on your part is down to other aspects of the system (such as HDD for instance).
    Reply
  • Iketh - Tuesday, June 14, 2011 - link

    are you forgetting single-threaded results? Reply
  • Broheim - Wednesday, June 15, 2011 - link

    1 synthetic benchmark... big whoop.

    they are equal in everything else
    Reply
  • duploxxx - Friday, June 17, 2011 - link

    perhaps actually read some reviews, they all agree on one thing, the system feels much smoother for daily tasks. I am sure you don't have both or used both so have no idea what you are talking about. just launching OS or any application is enough to notice the difference. I owned a n570 so i do know. Reply
  • Broheim - Monday, June 27, 2011 - link

    that is subjective opinion and the only subjective opinion that matters to me is my own. You fail to realize that the perceived user experience is a product of the system as a whole and not just a single component.... Reply
  • sinigami - Wednesday, June 15, 2011 - link

    i've only gotten to run two single threaded benchmarks on the E-350, and out of those two, the bench that showed the biggest improvement over the Atom was CPUMark99, by 6% percent, over an N455 in an MSI netbook.

    Granted, i didn't get to run all four of my single-threaded benchmarks on the E350 against the N455, but i will, and soon.
    Reply
  • maroon1 - Tuesday, June 14, 2011 - link

    Atom N455 is single core.

    There are new and better Atoms like N550
    Reply
  • sinigami - Wednesday, June 15, 2011 - link

    and, BTW, the N455 even plays 720p MKV. Who would expect any more than that out of a $250 netbook?

    But at the price of the E-350, i do expect more. And by more, i mean more than just ION level graphics that might let you send out 1080p to an external display. I want some significant CPU horsepower.
    Reply

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