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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  • ThomasS31 - Monday, February 15, 2010 - link would be very interesting if nVidia tell us the story openly, what happened with this long delayed newly designed chip.

    Anand staff, please try and persuade them to tell all details! :)
  • XiZeL - Monday, February 15, 2010 - link

    dont want to look like a fanboy here but these stories just make me like ATI even more, make me feel like part of the familiy...

    why dont you guys ever write these about nVidia?
  • Anand Lal Shimpi - Monday, February 15, 2010 - link

    The only reason I'm able to write something like this is because of how open/honest/unmarkety Carrell Killebrew is. And how trusting AMD PR is that they allow me to talk to him without any sort of limitations in place.

    Until recently, there hasn't been a similar contact for me at NVIDIA. That has changed in the past few months and I've already reached out to him to see if he is willing to allow me the same opportunity to talk about Fermi.

    If I can make it happen, I will :)

    Take care,
  • XiZeL - Tuesday, February 16, 2010 - link

    thanks for the reply :)

    just for the record, as a costumer and someone who really likes technology, these kind of articles will help me take my final descision when bying a product...
    yeally looking forward to seeing the same from Nvidia and try to understand their aproach on building a chip :)

    thanks again
  • Mat3 - Monday, February 15, 2010 - link

    I really enjoy reading stuff like this. One request for the next time you're talking to ATI guys: can you ask them about Fast14 and why it didn't work for them?
  • Iketh - Monday, February 15, 2010 - link

    6900 series = Pagan
    6800 series = Sarigan
    6700 series = Saipan
    6600/5500 series = Tinian
    6400 series = Rota

    Im probably way off lol
  • hyvonen - Monday, February 15, 2010 - link

    Leaker! You'll be reported.
  • XtremeOne - Monday, February 15, 2010 - link

    Thank You for this beautiful and insightful article. Like many before me, i registered just to say that. Anandtech is one of the sites I fell very lucky to know about. Some of your articles are a bit "techie" for me, but this one is practically impossible to stop reading. :D Thank you Anand.
  • Iketh - Monday, February 15, 2010 - link

    it's a shame there cant be more articles like this... having a close relationship with one company allows it every year or two, but there are many companies in this field which could produce many more stories... i feel Anand is slowly tapping into a gold mine
  • jstall - Monday, February 15, 2010 - link

    This is a fantastic article, nice to get some insight into the the RD and thought process just as much as it is to see performance charts. Be nice to see a little more of this.

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