The Design Experiment: Could Intel Build a GPU?

Larrabee is fundamentally built out of existing Intel x86 core technology, which not only means that the chip design isn't foreign to Intel, but also has serious implications for the future of desktop microprocessors. Larrabee isn't however built on Intel's current bread and butter, the Core architecture, instead Intel turned to a much older architecture as the basis for Larrabee: the original Pentium.

The original Pentium was manufactured on a 0.80µm process, later shrinking to 0.60µm. The question Intel posed was this: could an updated version of the Pentium core, built on a modern day process and equipped with a very wide vector unit, make a solid foundation for a high-end GPU?

To first test the theory Intel took a standard Core 2 Duo, with a 4MB L2 cache at an undisclosed clock speed (somewhere in the 1.8 - 2.9GHz range I'd guess). Then, on the same manufacturing process, roughly the same die area and power consumption, Intel sought to find out how many of these modified Pentium cores it could fit. The number was 10.

So in the space of a dual-core Core 2 Duo, Intel could construct this hypothetical 10-core chip. Let's look at the stats:

  Intel Core 2 Duo Hypothetical Larrabee
# of CPU Cores 2 out of order 10 in-order
Instructions per Issue 4 per clock 2 per clock
VPU Lanes per Core 4-wide SSE 16-wide
L2 Cache Size 4MB 4MB
Single-Stream Throughput 4 per clock 2 per clock
Vector Throughput 8 per clock 160 per clock

 

Note that what we're comparing here are operation throughputs, not how fast it can actually execute anything, just how many operations it can retire per clock.

Running a single instruction stream (e.g. single threaded application), the Core 2 can process as many as four operations per clock, since it can issue 4-instructions per clock and it isn't execution unit constrained. The 10-core design however can only issue two instructions per clock and thus the peak execution rate for a single instruction stream is two operations per clock, half the throughput of the Core 2. That's fine however since you'll actually want to be running vector operations on this core and leave your single threaded tasks to your Core 2 CPU anyways, and here's where the proposed architecture spreads its wings.

With two cores, each with their ability to execute 4 concurrent SSE operations per clock, you've got a throughput of 8 ops per clock on Core 2. On the 10-core design? 160 ops per clock, an increase of 20x in roughly the same die area and power budget.

On paper this could actually work. If you had enough of these cores, you could get the vector throughput necessary to actually build a reasonable GPU. Of course there are issues like adapting the x86 instruction set for use in a GPU, getting all of the cores to communicate with one another and actually keeping all of these execution resources busy - but this design experiment showed that it was possible.

Thus Larrabee was born.

Index Not Quite a Pentium, Not Quite an Atom: The Larrabee Core
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  • del - Friday, August 15, 2008 - link

    Don't be a hater. :P Intel has got it goin' on right now. Believe in the POWAH of Larrabee... unless it proves to be a failure upon release.

    :)
    Reply
  • atlmann10 - Saturday, August 09, 2008 - link

    Think about this ok AMD originally was a private IBM cpu manufacturer. Then bought out and run as a side unit of INTEL, that was dropped after they were done with them. So in a way the were partners and I'm sure there was some friendliness. As it's always been said keep your friends close but your enemies closer. There have been some things especially in these past two years that struck me kind of odd. Such as AMD's graphics chips running fine on a x38/48 chipset and the physics collaboration things as well as a few other rumors. Then Nvidia starts spouting off about how they could kick INTELS A77 etc. Now AMD has a definite GPU coprocessor in ATI and they wanna break into the market of GPU's etc. They know that there will be graphics competition with Nvidia being there largest competitior because there dedicated to GPU's solely and have a reputation. However now AMD has some chips that compete straight on weakening Nvidia to a point. Then AMD is getting more and more out of there cpu's gpu's and chipsets so INTEl jumps in the CPU GPU market just like AMD. Either way it turns out more are going to go with INTEL cpu's and many other products where AMD is kind of a fringe player. Who would you rather compete against full on 2 major GPU manufacturers or attempt to kind of co-align yourself with there competetitor while the somewhat down. Then throw out a whole new way to do graphics that performs well Nvidia is already loosing market share. So more people try it and the same number of people go with ATI. That leaves a much lower market for Nvidia plus there paying back what some 200 million dollars in bad GPU's right now as well and a few other problems they been having. Now this is not anything I know but knowing INTEL loves to stick it to competitors when there weak think about it. Reply
  • benkantor - Wednesday, August 06, 2008 - link

    if you could fit 10 Larrabees on 143 mm^2, you could fit 40 Larrabees on 286 mm^2, not 20... :P Reply
  • MamiyaOtaru - Saturday, August 09, 2008 - link

    For the love of education. We've already been through this. See the end of page 6 through page 7 in the comments section.

    143mm^2 doesn't mean 143*143. It means 143 square millimeters. 286 square millimeters is twice as many, allowing twice as many cores.
    http://img379.imageshack.us/my.php?image=squaremmh...">http://img379.imageshack.us/my.php?image=squaremmh...

    The article is right and you are so very wrong.
    Reply
  • Barack Obama - Wednesday, August 06, 2008 - link

    Derek and Anand deliver again! Reply
  • KGR - Wednesday, August 06, 2008 - link

    I am not a profeesional about software and hardware that is why maybe this question can sound nonsense .
    If larrabee will have a software renderer and programmed by C++ is it possible that it is not depended on windows? I mean if it doesnt need direct X can we run the games on Linux also??
    Reply
  • npoe1 - Tuesday, August 05, 2008 - link

    I enjoyed reading this so much. I think that this kind of articles is what Anandtech needs; I usually go to Arstechnica to read things like this one.

    Again, thanks!
    Reply
  • TrEmEnDo - Tuesday, August 05, 2008 - link

    I am definitely impressed with this new development and I expect that this technology will be disruptive down the road, however I feel that somehow they are about to commit another of their megalomaniac mistakes.
    Has anyone stopped for a sec and look where all gaming industry is heading into? Are PCs the future gaming platform? Maybe I am missing something but aren't the big guys already struggling to retain a 'decent' percentage of the multibillion gaming pie (PC gaming alliance anyone...)? I believe that whether us, tech enthusiast, hardcore pc gamers like it or not, it is the console arena where the big guns are going to be playing in a few years from now.
    Guys, we are seeing this happening everyday, we see tittles appearing and disappearing everyday b/c companies don't want to commit the resources to develop games for more than one or two platforms (normally doing a sloppy work BTW). Now that the grandpas of graphic hardware had manage to get DX/D3D derived engines into the last gen consoles (xenos, RSX) and a terribly inertial and rigid developer community avoids and whines about how difficult is to program for the few hardware 'jewels' that we have already in our hands (Cell/RV770/G200) do you think anyone except Intel is in the mood for yet another graphics industry spin?

    I have no doubt that this new development will have its own niche application or someone will definitely find something appropriate for it, but to say that Larrabee CAN do graphics and to say larrabee will kick ass so bad that in 3 years from now we all will be gaming from a Larrabee containing computer are two very different things.
    Congrats to Intel as the fathers of the creature, and congrats to us to see the tech world moving on....but just don't think this will change the world as we know it.
    Reply
  • hooflung - Tuesday, August 05, 2008 - link

    They are doing something very AMD like and taking it a step further and tossing in a few Power ideals in. I just wonder what the power profile will look like and who will partner up with Intel for it.

    I am sure they will have 4+ of these cores built into integrated chip sets for OEMs and laptops to really boost those areas. And people who buy laptops will see that they can get a desktop with 'bigger larrabee' and play their games faster than their budget/laptop computer.

    So it does make sense. However, it is an empire made on a lot of ifs. It will be fun to watch. Thanks anandtech for the informative article.
    Reply
  • christophergorge - Tuesday, August 05, 2008 - link

    is it just me or does it look like another transmeta crusoe in the making? Reply

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