Intel's marriage of CPU and GPU not ready for prime time

A spokesperson for Intel confirmed to Betanews this morning that the company's highly anticipated initial release of a commercial processor product based on its CPU+GPU architecture, code-named "Larrabee," will not come within early 2010 after all. This despite the first public demonstration late last September that seemed to indicate all was on track for a release in the first half of 2010.

"Larrabee silicon and software development are behind where we had hoped to be at this point in the project," stated spokesperson Nick Knupffer. "As a result, our first Larrabee product will not be launched as a standalone discrete graphics preoduct, but rather be used as a software development platform for internal and external use."

The project represents Intel's first attempt at a commercial product architecture that implements pipelining architecture for parallelism. Pipelining is what makes graphics architecture possible, essentially taking the same series of instructions with different data and distributing them through a very long chain. For massively parallel applications like graphics (drawing billions of filled triangles in real-time, for instance), pipelining is far preferable to multi-core, which doles out multiple, dissimilar threads that run in parallel but that are distributed sequentially.

Still, pipelining can be useful for applications other than graphics, which is one reason Intel and other manufacturers, including Nvidia and AMD division ATI, are actively experimenting with hybrid architectures. Some very good signs had been emerging from Intel's experiments, including not only a beautiful demonstration at the last Intel Development Forum in September, but a demonstration at a supercomputer demonstration last week by no less than Intel CTO Justin Rattner.

There, Rattner closed his keynote speech with a Steve Jobs-like "One More Thing" demo: a live test of a Larrabee architecture chip breaking the one teraflop barrier (one trillion floating point instructions per second). That's not a first, even for a commercial graphics card -- ATI was demonstrating teraflop cards in mid-2008. But it would put Intel in a position to compete directly against AMD's ATI division, as well as no-love-lost rival Nvidia, at the high end of the market.

Maybe not next year, though, as Knupffer's comments indicated that we'll hear an update about a Larrabee graphics card's progress "some time in 2010." At that time (whenever that really is), Intel may go into more detail as to the development of a "throughput computing development platform" based on Larrabee -- probably a blueprint for more supercomputing applications, but not consumer products.

There will be some sort of consumer hybrid computing product from Intel this month, Knupffer said: "Our plans to deliver the world's first CPUs with integrated graphics this month are unchanged." But that will evidently not be on the high end of the scale, but more of a value play. Intel has long been a producer of integrated graphics components, but in the performance department, they've never really won awards, especially from consumers.

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