The plan by ATI, which is set to merge with chipmaker Advanced Micro Devices this month, could give AMD a competitive edge against Intel in the fast-growing market for high-performance computing.

Aaron Ricadela, Contributor

October 2, 2006

4 Min Read

In the latest move by the computer industry to adapt high-speed, specialized graphics chips for broader business and scientific applications, ATI Technologies plans to develop versions of its processors capable of boosting the performance of supercomputing software. The plan by ATI, which is set to merge with chipmaker Advanced Micro Devices this month, could give AMD a competitive edge against Intel in the fast-growing market for high-performance computing.

ATI, which is being acquired by AMD in a $5.4 billion deal, is designing a version of its graphics chip that can connect to AMD's popular Opteron processor via Coherent Hypertransport, AMD's fast interconnection technology between CPUs and ancillary chips in a system. The companies are also working on systems that could combine AMD and ATI technologies on a single silicon chip. The move, which ATI called "stream computing," could help take graphics chips beyond their traditional domains of PC games and photo editing and apply them to running programs on genomics research, derivatives pricing, seismic processing for the oil and gas industry, and face and speech recognition for homeland security. The technology could also provide a boost to consumer software: Microsoft is building into its upcoming Windows Vista operating system features that take more direct advantage of graphics processing technology.

"Effectively, ATI is moving from games to genes," said the company's CEO, David Orton, at an event last Friday in San Francisco to launch the initiative. In an interview, Orton said ATI's engineers are making design decisions that emphasize fast movement of data among chips in a system and speedy execution of "double-precision," or 64-bit math, while preserving the ability for processors to do their traditional job of rendering millions of pixels on a PC screen hundreds of times each second. "We're not going to bloat the [graphics processing unit]" with features that raise costs, said Orton. "We want to continue to solve the graphics problems and be best-in-class."

The approach already has some takers. Hess Corp. is using ATI chips to speed up processing of seismic imaging software used to locate oil reserves. Stanford University Monday began distributing a beta test version of its Folding@home software that uses ATI chips to run analyses of protein folding 20 times to 40 times faster than an unaccelerated version of the software. The distributed software, which runs on 200,000 PCs, is used to research Alzheimer's disease, cancer, and Huntington's disease. And a technologist from Microsoft on Friday demonstrated photo-editing software running on Windows Vista that used ATI chips to accelerate its performance.

ATI, along with chipmaker Nvidia, has long been a leader in the market for graphics chips. During the past six months, interest has been growing in leveraging the chips' ability to quickly run the high-decimal-place "floating point" math required by scientific and engineering software at blazingly fast speeds, compared with general-purpose CPUs made by Intel and AMD. For example, ATI is developing a processor capable of roughly 500 billion floating-point operations per second, far more than can be handled by mainstream chips. AMD's Opteron chip, by comparison, is capable of about 21 billion FLOPS. But tapping the processors' power has required arcane programming knowledge, which has made the approach inaccessible to most programmers. ATI is attempting to address the problem by working with PeakStream, a Silicon Valley startup that last month released development tools and run-time software designed to ease programming of ATI chips for high-performance computing apps. PeakStream has garnered $17 million in venture-capital backing.

The computer industry is undertaking a resurgence of interest in using hardware accelerators to boost software performance, said ATI's Orton, who will continue to run ATI as a unit of AMD after the acquisition closes. AMD in June launched a program called Torrenza, under which companies including supercomputer maker Cray can connect coprocessing chips directly to AMD's Opteron chips. Intel and IBM last week released a new technical standard called "Geneseo" for connecting acceleration chips to CPUs by extending the PCI Express graphics bus standard. And Microsoft Research has created a prototype compiler that can exploit GPUs for running programs written in the C# language.

The $9 billion high-performance computing market is growing at 20% annually as companies apply supercomputing power to scientific and engineering apps to speed products to market and gain new insights into data.

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