Preventing Espionage at AMD: How The Eyefinity Project Came to Be

There’s one more thing Carrell Killebrew has done for the world. He’s single handedly responsible for getting Eyefinity included in the Evergreen stack.

It started like this. All GPU vendors go to their customers (OEMs) and ask them for features they’d like to have. The notebook vendors wanted a total of 6 display outputs from the GPU, although they only needed two to be active at the same time. Two paths could be used for LCD panels, two could be used for external outputs (VGA + DVI/HDMI) and two routed to a docking station connector.

Carrell thought it would be a shame to have all of these output pins but not be able to drive all six at the same time. So he came up with a plan to be able to drive at least 3 displays on any Evergreen card. The high end cards would support 6 displays simultaneously.

His desire to do this wasn’t born out of pure lunacy, Carrell does have a goal in mind. Within the next 6 years he wants to have a first generation holodeck operational. A first generation holodeck would be composed of a 180 degree hemispherical display with both positionally and phase accurate sound. We’ll also need the pixel pushing power to make it all seem lifelike. That amounts to at least 100 million pixels (7 million pixels for what’s directly in front of you, and the rest for everything else in the scene), or almost 25 times the number of pixels on a single 30” display.

We’re not quite at 2016, so he had to start somewhere. And that somewhere happened to be with enabling a minimum of 3 and a maximum of 6 displays, per card, for all members of the Evergreen family. Today we know the technology as Eyefinity, but internally Carrell called it SunSpot.

Carrell didn’t want anyone knowing about SunSpot, so he kept it off the Cypress PRS. Through some very clever maneuvering he managed to keep it off of the radar while engineering hammered out the PRS, and even managed to keep it off of the chopping block when the GPU was cut down in size. He knew that if anyone got wind of it, they’d ask him to kill it while the chip was being scaled down. To make matters worse, if anyone outside of a trusted few became aware of it - there was the chance that NVIDIA would have time to copy and implement the feature. It then became Carrell’s goal to keep SunSpot as quiet as possible.

It began with a list. On this list were names of people who needed to know about SunSpot. If your name wasn’t on the list not only did you not know about SunSpot, but no one who knew about the project was allowed to talk about it near you. There was an internal website created that had the names of everyone who needed to know about SunSpot.

Along with the list, came rules.

As I just mentioned, no one on the list could talk about SunSpot in a place where someone not on the list could overhear. And if you wanted to get someone added to the list, it had to be approved - the final say was in the hands of none other than Carrell Killebrew.

The SunSpot engineers went to work on the feature, bringing in others only when absolutely necessary. The team grew one person at a time and eventually plateaued. The software engineers weren’t made aware of SunSpot until the last minute. Carrell only gave them enough time to enable SunSpot, they didn’t get the luxury of advance knowledge.

Carrell went to David Glenn, head of software engineering at ATI and asked him what the latest possible date that they needed to have someone in software working on this stuff. David gave him a date. Carrell asked for a list of names of people who needed to know. David gave him three names. On that date, the SunSpot team called up those three people and said “we need to tell you something”. Needless to say, no one was happy about Carrell’s secrecy. Some of the higher ups at ATI knew Carrell had people working on something, they just had no idea what it was.

It's the software that ultimately made Eyefinity

When in his own cube Carrell always spoke about SunSpot in code. He called it feature A. Carrell was paranoid, and for good reason. The person who sat on the other side of Carrell’s cube wall left to work for NVIDIA a couple months into the SunSpot project. In all, ATI had three people leave and work for NVIDIA while SunSpot was going on. Carrell was confident that NVIDIA never knew what was coming.

Other than the obvious, there was one real problem with Carrell’s secrecy. In order for Eyefinity to work, it needed support from external companies. If you’ll remember back to the Radeon HD 5800 series launch, Samsung announced thin-bezel displays to be sold in 1, 3 or 6 panel configurations specifically for Eyefinity setups. There was no way to keep SunSpot a secret while still talking to OEMs like Samsung, it’s just too big of a risk. The likelihood of someone within ATI leaking SunSpot to NVIDIA is high enough. But from an employee for an OEM that deals with both companies? That’s pretty much guaranteed.

For a feature like SunSpot to go completely unnoticed during the development of a GPU is unheard of. Carrell even developed a rating system. The gold standard is launch; if SunSpot could remain a secret until the launch, that’s gold. Silver is if they can keep it a secret until they get chips back. And the effort would get a bronze if they could keep it a secret up to tape out, at that point NVIDIA would be at least one full product cycle behind ATI.

Eventually, Rick Bergman, GM of graphics at AMD, committed to keeping SunSpot a secret until bronze, but he told Carrell that when they got to tape out they were going to have a serious talk about this.

Time went on, SunSpot went on, Carrell and crew made it to bronze. The chip had taped out and no one knew about Carrell’s pet project. It got a little past bronze and Rick asked Carrell to have that talk. There were three customers that would really benefit from talking to them about SunSpot, then the killer: it would also help ATI competitively.

Carrell didn’t want to risk tipping off the competition to SunSpot, but he knew that in order to make it successful he needed OEMs on board. The solution was to simply add those at the OEMs who needed to know about SunSpot to the list. The same rules applied to them, and they were given a separate NDA from existing NDAs in place between AMD and the OEM. AMD legal treated SunSpot as proprietary IP, if anyone else within an OEM needed to know about it they needed to first ask for permission to discuss it. To make sure that any leaks would be traceable, Carrell called SunSpot a different name to each of the three OEMs involved.

A few weeks prior to the Cypress launch one of the CEOs at one of the OEMs saw Eyefinity and asked to show it to someone else. Even the CEO’s request needed to be approved before he could share. Surprisingly enough, each of the three OEMs abided by their agreement - to Carrell’s knowledge the tech never leaked.

NVIDIA's Surround driven off two cards

While NVIDIA demonstrated its own triple-display technology at this year’s CES, it’s purely a software solution; each GPU is still only limited to two display outputs. I asked Carrell what he thought about NVIDIA’s approach, he was honest as always.

Eyefinity allows for 3 outputs from a single GPU

ATI considered a software only approach a while ago, but ultimately vetoed it for a couple of reasons. With the software-only solution you need to have a multi-GPU capable system. That means a more expensive motherboard, a more powerful PSU and a little more hassle configuration wise. Then there were the performance concerns.

One scenario is that you have very noticeable asymmetry as you have one card driving one display and the other card driving two displays. This can cause some strange problems. The other scenario is that you have all three displays coming off of a single card, and in alternating frames you send display data from one GPU to the next either via PCIe or a CF/SLI connector. With 6 displays, Carrell was concerned that there wouldn’t be enough bandwidth to do that fast enough.

There were also game compatibility concerns that made ATI not interested in the software approach. Although I was quick to point out that FOV and aspect ratio issues are apparent in many games today with Eyefinity. Carrell agreed, but said that it’s a lot better than they expected - and better than it would have been had they used a software-only solution.

Not to belittle the efforts of ATI’s software engineers here. While Carrell was one of three people originally responsible for SunSpot, they weren’t the ones who made it great. In Carrell’s own words “In the end, I’d say the most key contributions came from our Software engineering team. SunSpot is more a software feature than a hardware one”. ATI’s software team, despite not being clued into the project until it was implemented in hardware, was responsible for taking SunSpot and turning it into Eyefinity.

As for the ridiculous amount of secrecy that surrounded SunSpot? It wasn’t just to keep Carrell entertained. AMD has since incorporated much of Carrell’s brand of information compartmentalization into how it handled other upcoming features. I have to wonder if Carrell somehow managed to derive Apple’s equation for secrecy.

The Payoff: How RV740 Saved Cypress Final Words


View All Comments

  • Stas - Sunday, February 14, 2010 - link

    Awesome. Thanks! Reply
  • Adul - Sunday, February 14, 2010 - link

    Really helps pass the time at work today. :) Keep it up.

    Btw when can we expect to see the new site launch?
  • aapocketz - Sunday, February 14, 2010 - link

    [quote]I was convinced that ATI had embraced a new, refocused approach to GPU design, only to learn that they nearly threw out all of the learnings with the RV870. [/quote]

    It sounds like they have had some successes trying different techniques, but without stability in their production process it is hard to repeat success. I understand that they require constant innovation to stay competitive, but throwing out whole processes seems chaotic to me. I would like them to refine and improve successful processes rather than toss everything every time a new business guru is in charge.

    Also half of their effort was all about openness and collaboration. The opening up of the PRS document so that "everyone was involved in the process" seems to clash with the hyper-secret groups where "AMD has since incorporated much of Carrell’s brand of information compartmentalization into how it handled other upcoming features." This seems like a recipe for disaster to me. Which is it, broad openness, collaboration and consesus; or secret teams that have no idea what the other teams are doing?
  • SuperGee - Sunday, February 14, 2010 - link

    The story told us that they didn't know it will become a succes because these desision where made before RV770 release. So doing the high risk choice again. Wasn't a nobrainer. But a risky choice. We know that it turn out good now. Reply
  • mckirkus - Sunday, February 14, 2010 - link

    It's kind of funny that you're not yet running one of these companies yet Anand.

    One of the reasons I check this site on a daily basis is because you also seem to also get the business side of the equation. It's downright refreshing to see someone bridging that gap. You pretty much saved the Vertex from self destruction. I'd like to see what interesting things you could build us if you put your mind to it.
  • deputc26 - Sunday, February 14, 2010 - link

    Articles like these are what differentiate AnandTech from all the other sites out there. AnandTech goes from being one of the best review sites out there to something special.

    Beyond excellent, thanks Anand.
  • rickyv - Sunday, February 14, 2010 - link

    As a loyal follower of your website for the past 15 years, I also felt that I just had to register and compliment you on an excellent article.

    With the rapid advancement of technology, it is very easy just to get caught up in the PR and marketing hype or focus only on the numbers game. We often lose sight of the fact that it is teams of dedicated people who make this possible. You have always had the ability to bring out the "human" side to this. I have not seen this on any other site nor in printed form (that is not an unashamedly PR marketing exercise).

    Thanks for staying true to your roots by giving honest opinions of the technology that you review. The latest releases are not necessarily always the greatest (as much as the marketing departments would like us to believe :-) )
  • krish123 - Sunday, February 14, 2010 - link

    After i read the article, I found that "Engine is running well and firing on all the cylinders", It can create better products in the future, I can trust and buy ATI products, hope they deliver better products in the future for my upgrade.

    "Kudos to Anand for the excellent article".

    By the way graphics card is a product, not just hardware, it has to work in tandem with the software, its better ATI put some more effort on the driver/software side and fix all the issues.

  • smartalec - Sunday, February 14, 2010 - link

    "When companies like AMD and NVIDIA do a product the engineers don't know all of the answers, and the knowledge they do have isn't binary - it's probability, it's weight, it's guesses. Sometimes they guess right, and sometimes they guess very wrong. The best they can do is to all weigh in with their individual experiences and together come up with the best group of guesses to implement."

    I'm afraid this is how all engineering works. Project managers think that engineers can predict the future. That we know exactly how much time it'll take, and how much risk a given feature will bring.

    We don't. There's a lot of educated guesses. Sometimes we're pleasantly surprised that what we thought was a tough problem wasn't. Sometimes we're the bearer of bad news-- something we assumed would be trivial wasn't.

    My most frustrating issues aren't technical at all. I ask for 2000 hours, and are given 1000. Or are given 2 engineers instead of 3, and told-- figure out a way to get it done anyway, without impacting schedule.

    Great article Anand.
  • mckirkus - Sunday, February 14, 2010 - link

    Any decent project manager (I do software) reviews the risks up front with the engineers before building the project plan / timeline.

    The fact that most project managers don't really understand the products they manage is the rule not the exception. The problem is that great engineers don't always make great PMs. Having a good tech lead helps.

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