AMD Graphics Core Next: Out With VLIW, In With SIMD

The fundamental issue moving forward is that VLIW designs are great for graphics; they are not so great for computing. However AMD has for all intents and purposes bet the company on GPU computing – their Fusion initiative isn’t just about putting a decent GPU right on die with a CPU, but then utilizing the radically different design attributes of a GPU to do the computational work that the CPU struggles at. So a GPU design that is great at graphics and poor at computing work simply isn’t sustainable for AMD’s future.

With AMD Graphics Core Next, VLIW is going away in favor of a non-VLIW SIMD design. In principal the two are similar – run lots of things in parallel – but there’s a world of difference in execution. Whereas VLIW is all about extracting instruction level parallelism (ILP), a non-VLIW SIMD is primarily about thread level parallelism (TLP).

Without getting unnecessarily deep into the differences between VLIW and non-VLIW (we’ll save that for another time), the difference in the architectures is about what VLIW does poorly for GPU computing purposes, and why a non-VLIW SIMD fixes it. The principal issue is that VLIW is hard to schedule ahead of time and there’s no dynamic scheduling during execution, and as a result the bulk of its weaknesses follow from that. As VLIW5 was a good fit for graphics, it was rather easy to efficiently compile and schedule shaders under those circumstances. With compute this isn’t always the case; there’s simply a wider range of things going on and it’s difficult to figure out what instructions will play nicely with each other. Only a handful of tasks such as brute force hashing thrive under this architecture.

Furthermore as VLIW lives and dies by the compiler, which means not only must the compiler be good, but that every compiler is good. This is an issue when it comes to expanding language support, as even with abstraction through intermediate languages you can still run into issues, including issues with a compiler producing intermediate code that the shader compiler can’t handle well.

Finally, the complexity of a VLIW instruction set also rears its head when it comes to optimizing and hand-tuning a program. Again this isn’t normally a problem for graphics, but it is for compute. The complex nature of VLIW makes it harder to disassemble and to debug, and in turn difficult to predict performance and to find and fix performance critical sections of the code. Ideally a coder should never have to work in assembly, but for HPC and other uses there is a good deal of performance to be gained by doing so and optimizing down to the single instruction.

AMD provided a short example of this in their presentation, showcasing the example output of their VLIW compiler and their new compiler for Graphics Core Next. Being a coder helps, but it’s not hard to see how contrived things are under VLIW.

// Registers r0 contains "a", r1 contains "b"
// Value is returned in r2

       1  x: PREDGT     ____, R0.x,  R1.x
01 JUMP   ADDR(3)
02 ALU
       2  x: SUB        ____, R0.x,  R1.x
       3  x: MUL_e      R2.x, PV2.x, R0.x
       4  x: SUB        ____, R1.x,  R0.x
       5  x: MUL_e      R2.x, PV4.x, R1.x
05 POP(1) ADDR(6)


// Registers r0 contains "a", r1 contains "b"
// Value is returned in r2

v_cmp_gt_f32       r0,r1        
  //a > b, establish VCC
      s0,exec        //Save current exec mask
      exec,vcc,exec  //Do "if"
   label0         //Branch if all lanes fail
      r2,r0,r1       //result = a - b
      r2,r2,r0       //result=result * a

    exec,s0,exec   //Do "else" (s0 & !exec)
s_cbranch_execz    label1         //Branch if all lanes fail
      r2,r1,r0       //result = b - a
      r2,r2,r1       //result = result * b

      exec,s0        //Restore exec mask


VLIW: it’s good for graphics, it’s often not as good for compute.

So what does AMD replace VLIW with? They replace it with a traditional SIMD vector processor. While elements of Cayman do not directly map to elements of Graphics Core Next (GCN), since we’ve already been talking about the SP we’ll talk about its closest replacement: the SIMD.

Not to be confused with the SIMD on Cayman (which is a collection of SPs), the SIMD on GCN is a true 16-wide vector SIMD. A single instruction and up to 16 data elements are fed to a vector SIMD to be processed over a single clock cycle. As with Cayman, AMD’s wavefronts are 64 instructions meaning it takes 4 cycles to actually complete a single instruction for an entire wavefront.  This vector unit is combined with a 64KB register file and that composes a single SIMD in GCN.

As is the case with Cayman's SPs, the SIMD is capable of a number of different integer and floating point operations. AMD has not gone into fine detail yet of what those are, but we’re expecting something similar to Cayman with the possible exception of how transcendentals are handled. One thing that we do know is that FP64 performance has been radically improved: the GCN architecture is capable of FP64 performance up to ½ its FP32 performance. For home users this isn’t going to make a significant impact right away, but it’s going to help AMD get into professional markets where such precision is necessary.


Prelude: The History of VLIW & Graphics Many SIMDs Make One Compute Unit


View All Comments

  • Targon - Sunday, June 19, 2011 - link

    AMD wants to put an end to the GPU in the chipset, but no one expects dedicated CPU and GPU to go away. Now, the code that would take advantage of the APU would probably work with a full AMD CPU/AMD GPU combination, so the software side of things would not need a lot of change to support both configurations. Reply
  • khimera2000 - Sunday, June 19, 2011 - link

    Agree, dedicated cards will not go away, however intergrated cards like the past will.

    I think we see Eye to Eye on this. AMD wants to take full advantage of all its hardware, It looks like the way there trying to do it is by combining the CPU and Intergrated GPU into one package, after which they want to set it up so infromation that goes into that package dosent have to leave to be processed, like sending it out to ram from the CPU only to be read by the GPU.

    Still want to see how this will work across PCI-E. I can already see future reviews and comparisons on how effetive GPU acceleration is on there intergrated aproach VS discreet cards. AND Buying those discreet cards :D

    By the time these parts comes out my desktop will be right in the middle of its upgrade cycle :D
  • Targon - Monday, June 20, 2011 - link

    AMD needs to push for the HTX slot again for discrete video, where there is a direct HyperTransport link between the CPU and whatever is plugged into that slot. PCI-Express is decent, but HTX would and should blow the doors off PCI-Express. Reply
  • rnssr71 - Friday, June 17, 2011 - link

    i wish this coming next year especially in Trinity but at lest they are heading in the right direction:) also, to those wondering about improvements in gaming ability, look what amd did with cayman vs cypress- the improved efficiency and noticeably improved performance on the same manufacturing.
    GCN this is going to improve efficiency even farther and they are cutting the transistor size roughly in half.
  • nlr_2000 - Saturday, June 18, 2011 - link

    "Unfortunately, those of you expecting any additional graphics information will have to sight tight for the time being." sight = sit Reply
  • EnerJi - Saturday, June 18, 2011 - link

    I wonder if this architecture would be a particularly good fit for a next-generation Xbox (due around 2013)? Any thoughts on this? Reply
  • GaMEChld - Saturday, June 18, 2011 - link

    2013? I heard 2015, unless they recently changed dates to counter Nintendo. Anyways, I'm not so sure what benefits a console will realize from this, since full blown PC's barely get to utilize much of the technology we currently have access to. Multi-threading, 64-bit support, advanced cpu instructions are all available yet barely utilized features.

    Also, consoles are designed to be cost effective and relatively cheap, so usually modified older generation architecture is used. For example, the new Wii uses Radeon 4700 class graphics, which sounds old but is roughly twice as powerful as the X360 (Radeon X1900) or PS3 (GF7000) graphics.
  • DanNeely - Saturday, June 18, 2011 - link

    That's true of the Wii because Nintendo doesn't subsidize the console, but MS and Sony have gone after higher end GPUs for their last launches. The XBox 360 launched using a GPU similar to that of the ATI 1900, a bare month and a half after the card hit the market.The PS3 used a GF7800 derivative and launched roughly 1 year after the GF7800 did. The GF7900 was nVidias top of the line card at the time, but it was only a marginal improvement over the 7800. Reply
  • swaaye - Saturday, June 18, 2011 - link

    PS3 actually launched about when G80 came out, which obviously made RSX look awfully retro when you saw 7900GTX SLI being beaten in reviews by a single board. ;) But G80 surely was never an option for a console due to size and power.

    Xenos has less than half of the pixel fillrate of X1900. X1900 also has 48 pixel shader units + 8 vertex shaders so it might have an advantage over Xenos 48 unified units, especially when clock speed and the access to a large RAM pool over a 256-bit bus are taken into account.
  • GaMEChld - Sunday, June 19, 2011 - link

    But we must also bear in mind that X360 and PS3 may have chosen high on the scale because of the concurrent shift to 720p/1080p resolution instead of the old 480p standard. At this point in time, the 1080p resolution is standardized, so greatly escalating GPU horsepower will show diminishing gains, since people aren't really going to be gaming on higher resolutions than the new standard tv resolution.

    What I mean is, if a Radeon 5000 Series could maximize all graphics quality at 1080p, why would a console manufacturer bother with more power?

    For example, you wouldn't buy a GTX590 or Radeon 6990 just to game on a 1080p monitor, would you?

    The only exception I can think of for this TV resolution argument is 3DTV gaming, in which case I am not well versed in the added GPU overhead required to render a 3D game.

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