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12/6/2009
08:11 PM
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Intel Larrabee Graphics Chip Cancelled

The plan to field a multicore graphics engine, which would have put Intel into direct competition against Nvidia, has been put on hold for now.

Intel's plan to field a standalone multicore processor dedicated solely to advanced graphics has hit a major roadblock, with the chip giant e-mailing around a statement saying that the chip, code-named Larrabee, won't be launching anytime soon.

What remains unclear is whether Intel is merely pushing its productization plans back until it can work the kinks out of an admittedly complex design, or whether there's any credence to rumblings from the Nvidia camp that Intel's envisioned graphics architecture isn't up to snuff.

Larrabee has been in the works for several years. It's been billed as a "many-core x86 architecture for visual computing." That tag line highlights how its DNA differs from prevailing industry thinking, which holds that graphics processors must implement specialized rendering and mapping functions in purpose-built hardware blocks.

In contrast, Intel was planning to extend its general-purpose X86 processors into the graphics realm, and by doing it smartly create an engine which is easy to build and leverages the Intel knowledge base. In simplest architectural terms, Larrabee would take thirty-two X86 CPU cores and tie them together with a right of cache memory enabling fast, inter-processor communication.

While Intel has apparently made significant progress on Larrabee, even demonstrating a working prototype at the Intel Developer Forum this past September, that progress wasn't enough to support going forward with launch plans.

"Larrabee silicon and software development are behind where we had hoped to be at this point in the project," an Intel spokesman wrote in an e-mail statement. "As a result, our first Larrabee product will not be launched as a standalone discrete graphics product, but rather be used as a software development platform for internal and external use. While we are disappointed that the product is not yet where we expected, we remain committed to delivering world-class many-core graphics products to our customers. Additional plans for discrete graphics products will be discussed some time in 2010."

Lending credence to the thinking that Intel isn't abandoning Larrabee is the wealth of developer material on Intel's forums.

On the usability angle, what Intel brings to the developer party that's a little different is that fact that it's making its X86 instruction set more amenable to graphics by adding special extensions to support the Larrabee architecture. In theory, this means that programmers who've already got good x86 experience can edge over into the graphics realm and get good results.

Yet it's precisely that "general-purpose-ness" which seems to sticks in the craw of the Nvidia camp. Intel and Nvidia, allies years ago, have been embroiled in a two-way legal battle over patents and licensing. The Nvidia user forums are rife with speculation about the fate of Larrabee.

One commenter summed up one school of thinking by noting that it's impossible to really tell just how well Larrabee would perform against Nvidia's new "Fermi" high-end graphics-computing architecture, because so many details of the former remain under NDA.

For Further Reading:

Intel Floats Cloud Computing On A Chip;

Intel Demos 48-Core CPU;

FTC Probes Nvidia, Intel Licensing Dispute.
InformationWeek has published an in-depth report on new software models. Download the report here (registration required).

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