Graphics Coming Back to Intel Architecture: Interview with Intel Visual Computing Group

Intel Corp. is the world’s largest supplier of graphics adapters, despite of the fact that it has not introduced a single new discrete graphics chip in the last decade. The company still has hopes for the market of standalone graphics processors and plans to introduce its Larrabee product in 2009 – 2010 timeframe. Since the new player on the market of graphics cards poses a great interest, we decided to ask Intel a number of questions about the market of discrete graphics processors, the company’s vision of the GPU design as well as Larrabee project.

by Anton Shilov
12/16/2008 | 02:17 PM

X-bit labs: Hello, can you introduce yourself to our readers please?


Nick Knupffer: I am Intel’s PR spokesperson for all our graphics technologies.

X-bit labs: Some of our readers probably do not know about your career and would be interested to know more about your role at Intel and graphics products division, can you talk about that? 

Nick Knupffer

Nick Knupffer: Sure – I started off at Intel in the UK in ’99 in a technical role supporting our largest OEM customers. Intel allows quite a large degree of job movement within the company and so I decided to take advantage of Intel’s grandeur and took a job managing gaming marketing programs; and then I moved to UK public relations. The technical aspect along with the many lunches appealed to me – and I am pleased to say that I count quite a large number of journalists among my friends now. In 2004 – Intel asked me to move to our HQ in Santa Clara and I have been here ever since – with a bird’s eye view of the technology industry. Quite a privileged position I can assure you.

Closer Look at Intel’s Graphics Products Division

X-bit labs: Can you reveal more information about Intel’s graphics adapter division? How many people are working on integrated graphics processors (IGPs) and how many are assigned on the Larrabee project? How many are working on actual hardware and how many are developing drivers and software

Nick Knupffer: Let’s just say that there are a large number of very interesting and clever people working in our Visual Computing Group or ‘VCG’. Some are originally from Intel but many come from a myriad of graphics hardware and software companies – the sheer variety of expertise means a trip to the VCG main campus in Oregon is always fun.

Intel’s Ronler Acres Campus in Hilsboro, Oregon

X-bit labs: Both ATI and Nvidia have relatively large teams who assist video game developers. Does Intel have such a team right now?

Nick Knupffer: Actually we have quite a long history of doing this already on the CPU side of things. For VCG - while it is too early to go into any specifics, but you can be assured that Intel will do the right thing.

X-bit labs: What are the primary goals for Intel’s graphics product division right now?

Nick Knupffer: Well, we haven’t actually announced any products yet, only the Larrabee architecture. We are heads down working on making sure our architecture delivers on the promise of developer freedom.

X-bit labs: What do you consider to be fundamental advantages that Intel’s graphics division will have – once it launches Larrabee – over ATI/AMD and Nvidia?

Nick Knupffer: Well, I can’t comment about ATI or Nvidia – but I believe that the developer freedom afforded by Larrabee’s many-core architecture will launch a new era of innovation. While current games keep getting more and more realistic, they do so within a rigid framework. Larrabee was created in consultation with the world’s top 3D graphics gurus, the idea is to give will give developers of games and APIs a blank canvas onto which they can innovate like never before.  

Graphics Business Today

X-bit labs: Will and how the global economic crisis may impact Intel’s launch of Larrabee product and its graphics cards business?

Nick Knupffer: We are investing for the future. We have been through many cycles before and the one thing we have learned is you cannot save your way out of a downturn.

X-bit labs: How do you think the global economic slump will affect further development of the market? Do you expect integrated graphics processors to become dramatically more popular than relatively expensive discrete products?

Nick Knupffer: When things get difficult, people go to the Internet to save money, to play games and enjoy entertainment in the home, to conduct business, and connect with friends. We believe people want to buy the best products in this environment, and that they will want the best products when the cycle ends. The PC and access to the Internet has become indispensable. Intel is a key ingredient, and we feel we will emerge from this cycle stronger than ever because of that. 

Intel mainboard based on Intel G45 chipset. 
Believe it or not, but Intel’s IGPs powered 49.4% of PCs 
sold globally in Q3 2008, according to JPR.

X-bit labs: If the market shifts towards entry-level or mainstream graphics processing units and existing players make those chips much more powerful than today, do you think that this will pose a threat to Intel’s integrated graphics processors (IGPs)?

Nick Knupffer: Integrated graphics are suitable for many things, I use our G45 chipset in my home media-centre PC – it works great for DVD or Blu-Ray – IGP is also great for laptops if you value battery life. If you are a hardcore gamer – you will probably want to spend a little more on your graphics than the cost of a cup of Starbucks; integrated graphics really is really good value. However - we believe that there is a market for powerful discrete graphics cards, hence why we are working on Larrabee.

X-bit labs: Does Intel plan to reduce graphics research and development (R&D) spending because of the economic crisis?

Nick Knupffer: As I said before – We are investing for the future. We have been through many cycles before and the one thing we have learned is you cannot save your way out of a downturn.

X-bit labs: The market of discrete desktop graphics cards has been very stable in the recent years and with several exceptions TAM (total available market) was in the range of 20 – 22 million units per quarter (according to Jon Peddie Research). Do you think it will stay on than level, or will increase or decrease? Do you think it is possible for Intel to be really competitive against ATI and Nvidia on this market?

Nick Knupffer: Hehehe, I think this is a good question for Jon Peddie. ;-)

X-bit labs: Do you think it is possible for Intel to be really competitive against ATI and Nvidia on this market that is very stable in terms of TAM (which means that it is not really growing)?

Nick Knupffer: One thing that is growing is the programmability demands on those GPUs is growing with each generation of graphics API and game Engine. Larrabee cuts to the chase bringing complete programmability and developer freedom instead of incremental improvements in programmability. If if you look at the Siggraph paper we published – you will see that the Larrabee architecture does have the capability of delivering quite a lot of computing power.

X-bit labs: Unlike the TAM, average selling price (ASP) of a graphics card has been fluctuating dramatically in the recent years. Do you think that it makes sense for Intel to enter this market as the ASPs are changing dramatically from quarter to quarter?

Nick Knupffer: I can’t answer this – A 3rd party analyst opinion is probably your best bet.

X-bit labs: What are the markets that Intel would target on the first place in terms of revenue increase with the Larrabee products: discrete desktop, discrete mobile, professional cards?

Nick Knupffer: We will make these kinds of announcements closer to product availability – as of now – we have only disclosed some architectural details.

X-bit labs: Do you think that there is a market for discrete graphics cards in developing markets, such as Africa or India?

Nick Knupffer: Are you suggesting there aren’t gamers in those markets?

X-bit labs: There definitely are gamers, but probably not a lot of them. Those two markets are growing rapidly, but the question is whether they are significant for discrete GPUs?

Nick Knupffer: Again, this is probably a question best answered by your favourite analyst. But as new markets mature and their middle classes emerge, they start to buy the same things as people in Europe and the US. The difference being – the populations of countries such as India and China are incredibly large – so the market opportunity (or future market opportunity) is not to be sneezed at.

X-bit labs: How will you attract graphics cards makers to Larrabee products? Have you already negotiated with certain vendors?

Nick Knupffer: It is too early to talk about this.

X-bit labs: Do you think that Intel’s fundamental advantages over rivals when it comes to process technologies will help its graphics chips business?

Nick Knupffer: Well, over a year ago we launched our latest Hi-k metal gate transistor based 45nm process featuring completely reinvented transistors. The CPU’s based on this node have proved to be very fast, very cool and very popular. Smaller, cooler and faster transistors would also be useful in the graphics market. By the way – we demonstrated working chips based on our 32nm process in September of 2007.

X-bit labs: Do you think that chipsets with integrated graphics processors (and eventually central processing units with built-in graphics cores) will impact the TAM of discrete graphics cards in the future?

Nick Knupffer: Discrete cards are not going away soon – gamers will always want the most powerful cards they can afford.

X-bit labs: Unlike graphics cards, TAM of video game consoles have been showing dramatic growth levels. Do you think that video game consoles also impact the market of graphics cards or even represent a threat to gaming PCs in general?

Nick Knupffer: You better ask your analyst again!

X-bit labs: Are video game consoles a target market that Intel’s Visual Computing Group would like to address?

Nick Knupffer: The Larrabee architecture is a throughput-architecture suitable for a wide range of parallel workloads.  The first products will be processors targeting discrete graphics market. You can expect that we will enter additional markets in the fullness of time.

X-bit labs: Do you think that since the most popular video game console – Nintendo Wii – has very basic graphics capabilities, this will lower demands towards high-quality graphics in PC video games and consequently will impact sales of advanced graphics cards? 

Nick Knupffer: This is not new. Even in the PC space there have always been many different kinds of games. Mainstream games that can run on integrated graphics and then there is Crysis and other hard-core titles.

X-bit labs: Do you think that emergence of high-definition video standard will help the PC graphics adapter market to grow?

Nick Knupffer: Not very relevant to discrete graphics cards today. Intel’s G45 integrated graphics decodes Blu-Ray perfectly with post processing and image enhancement done on silicon. If you are talking encoding, the CPU is the best place to do that.

Intel’s Vision of Graphics Chip Design, Evolution and Strategy

X-bit labs: Can you name the advantages that Intel’s x86 instruction set will bring to graphics processors?

Nick Knupffer: One of the benefits of the Larrabee architecture’s inherent programmability is that it does not rely on fixed pipelines set out by versions of existing API’s. We expect to support future versions of DirectX and OpenGL. Larrabee’s instruction set will be published and most programmers are already very familiar with IA. Add support for irregular data structures, cache coherency, the ability to do software rendering and as such have the option of using the most appropriate renderer for any single game, any single frame or even any single triangle – and you have a pretty compelling set of features.

Schematic block diagram of Intel Larrabee graphics processor

X-bit labs: Do you think that GPGPU technology will ever go mainstream? Does it make sense to invest into that for Intel and software developers?

Nick Knupffer: GPGPU technology like CUDA allows you to use the GPU as an accelerator to the CPU. Such accelerators are not new, there is a place for them but, given the issues will be niche application. Drawbacks include code development and optimization that requires major investment, actual application level performance is far less than often claimed kernel level performance claims due to bottlenecks, code often does not scale forward to next generation resulting in costly re-work. Intel’s approach is to offer the increasing parallelism of a GPU with full CPU architecture compatibility, offering all of the benefits with none of the drawbacks.

X-bit labs: Did you decide to make Larrabee x86 compatible because in that case it would be easier for the chip to compete on the market of accelerated computing (or GPGPU, if you prefer)?

Nick Knupffer: Intel Architecture is the gold standard for a programmable device and is well understood by developers everywhere. IA is also what Intel does best. For Intel to build a truly programmable GPU device, using IA technology is the obvious choice, so long as it can be done in an extremely power conscious manner.

X-bit labs: Considering the fact that Larrabee GPU is very similar to the CPUs, can we talk about convergence between CPUs and GPUs?

Nick Knupffer: Well, graphics are being integrated into the processor in the a future Nehalem processor – but I can’t see the need for discrete graphics cards going away any times soon for those who demand the best 3D performance.

X-bit labs: What are the primary constraints for GPU performance today, power consumption, memory bandwidth, anything else?

Nick Knupffer: Power consumption, memory bandwidth, and shader execution are performance constraints for GPUs today. Which one dominates varies from workload to workload, and also from platform to platform (Extreme, pro, mobile, etc..). This is key to Larrabee's usage of an all software pipeline and general purpose resources, we adjust to the workload to apply resources where necessary.

X-bit labs: How often do you plan to update your graphics products family? ATI and Nvidia tend to update the high-end families two times a year, but Intel introduces microprocessors for high-end markets more often.

Nick Knupffer: Well we haven’t even announced the first Larrabee product, so I think it is a bit premature to answer this question. We will do the right thing.

X-bit labs: What is your opinion about external graphics adapters? There are a couple of them on the market aiming laptops (e.g., Amilo Booster, Asustek XG Station), but maybe that market is going to grow substantially in the future?

Nick Knupffer: Potentially a terrific idea. Imagine being on the go using integrated graphics, benefiting from excellent battery life and small form factor – then coming home and plugging your high performance laptop into an external card and getting its full hardcore 3D gaming benefits. I think quite a lot of mobile power users would like this scenario – especially when coupled with a mobile Intel Core 2 Extreme processor.

Larrabee and Future Products

X-bit labs: Is there internal deadline for Larrabee launch? It does not seem that the product will be released in 2009.

Nick Knupffer: We have said that the first Larrabee product will launch in the 2009/2010 timeframe.

X-bit labs: Have you taped out the Larrabee GPU already? Is there anything that your engineers, or third-party developers, have to play with already?

Nick Knupffer: We don’t normally give out those kinds of schedules. We are on track for our 2009/2010 launch timeframe.

Intel’s D1D Fab in Hilsboro, Oregon. 
Perhaps, this is where Intel is currently manufacturing the very first Larrabee prototypes?

X-bit labs: What levels of performance (in TFLOPs) should we expect from Larrabee as well as GPUs in the next 2-3 years?

Nick Knupffer: You will have to wait and see. But just like in the CPU space – TFLOPS are not an accurate representation of performance – you will want to look at actual application performance.

X-bit labs: Do you think that full programmability of Larrabee will be utilized by developers despite of the fact that there is no API for it? Perhaps, Intel plans to release its own API for Larrabee?

Nick Knupffer: For the pure C/C++ programmability of the Larrabee Native programming model that we describe in the paper, we believe that the compiler and the ISA is the fundamental building blocks needed to enable these developers.  From that they can build any system to harness Larrabee. If by API, you mean release our own "Graphics API", then we remind you again that we have full support for DirectX and OpenGL APIs.

X-bit labs: Do you think that the lack of extreme programmability on ATI and Nvidia GPUs will slowdown adoption of Larrabee’s advanced capabilities by developers?

Nick Knupffer: We haven’t seen this level of developer excitement for a very long time – we will be able to share more closer to product launch.


X-bit labs: What are the reasons that led Intel to decision of creating a radically new GPU design when it comes to Larrabee?

Nick Knupffer: This is a great question and not one many people ask. In actual fact: Graphics has come back to IA, not the other way around.

Let me explain: If you look back to the Pentium processor era, developers ran all their 3D engines on the CPU. They had complete freedom to develop their games and 3D engines as they wished as the CPU was inherently a general purpose machine and as such completely programmable. They could use rasterization, voxels (remember Comanche?), rendered polygons, or whatever method they cared to invent.

Then the first consumer graphics card came out, the 3dfx Voodoo. The Voodoo basically implemented a subset of OpenGL into silicon. Any fixed function silicon device will (or should) always outperform general purpose hardware in both outright performance and power. The games programmers were both delighted at the speed and disappointed in being shackled into using a rigid graphics pipeline. Things developed, DirectX was created and the industry continued to deliver faster and faster rasterization hardware.  However – with DirectX 8 and then 9, 10 and now 11 – more and more stages of the graphics pipeline have become more and more programmable.

Today’s graphics cards are still fixed pipeline devices but with some programmable stages. So in effect – the graphics pipeline itself has moved back towards the general purpose architecture of the CPU – and Larrabee is composed of many small general purpose IA cores.

X-bit labs: Don’t you think that decision to fully rely on computational power of Larrabee and not install traditional GPU components, such as render-back ends and others, are a bit risky in terms of performance?

Nick Knupffer: Your statement is not entirely accurate – although we have tried to get rid of all fixed function hardware – we still have hardware HD video decoders and texture samplers. This is because in the worst case scenario, the Larrabee cores were 40 times slower than fixed function texture samplers. So we believe we are making the right performance decisions.

X-bit labs: It is obvious that it is crucial to be the first with introduction of next-generation products. But it looks like Larrabee will not be the first DirectX 11 chip on the market. How do you plan to compete against rivals?

Nick Knupffer: We have not announced specific DirectX version support. However Larrabee features a software renderer, this means that supporting any API is simply a question of updating the driver.

X-bit labs: Will we see a family or Larrabee graphics processors, or will there be one chip targeting specific market segment?

Nick Knupffer: Wait and see!


Intel’s TeraFLOPs research chip with 80 cores. 
The grandfather of Larrabee?

X-bit labs: Based on what is known about Larrabee today, its power consumption is going to be very high, which will make it uneasy to adopt the product for mobile computers. Do you think that importance of discrete GPUs for mobile is dropping?

Nick Knupffer: We have made no announcements with regard to power.

X-bit labs: There are two ways of creating high-end graphics cards these days: one way is to place two GPUs on graphics card, another way is to create a very large high-end GPU. Which of the ways does Intel plan to use?

Nick Knupffer: Wait and see.

X-bit labs: Modern multi-GPU configurations are homogeneous multi-chip setups. Perhaps, it makes sense to look at so-called heterogeneous multi-chip configurations (e.g., one chip does load-balancing, other chip computes, etc)?

Nick Knupffer: You could in theory do this with current GPU’s. We have made no announcement with regards to Larrabee.

X-bit labs: Do you have any plans to introduce integrated graphics processors (akin to Nvidia’s Quadro ) for professional market segments?

Nick Knupffer: CAD users tend to need huge 3D capabilities in their hardware – they will likely use discrete cards.

X-bit labs: But would you expect IGPs to reach the level when they are good enough even for CAD users in the foreseeable future?

Nick Knupffer: It is not our primary design target, but we are always assessing opportunities in new market segments.

X-bit labs: Thank you very much for interesting and informative answers, Nick!