Intel shows working Larrabee system

Intel's Larrabee chip is the chip maker's first discrete graphics processor

Intel on Tuesday demonstrated the first system based on its Larrabee graphics processor, providing some more details about a product that remains something of a mystery.

Larrabee will be Intel's first discrete graphics processor, said Sean Maloney, one of the executive vice presidents in charge of Intel's newly formed microprocessor group. He demonstrated the chip on stage during the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco.

An Intel research scientist showed a Larrabee system running the game "Enemy Territory: Quake Wars." He showed how Larrabee can employ ray tracing -- a technique for generating realistic images by tracing a path of light -- to create an image of flowing water and the shadows it creates. The system also used an upcoming six-core Intel server processor, code-named Gulftown, which is due for release early next year.

"[Larrabee] allows you to simulate the interaction of lights and action and make it more accurate," said the research scientist, Bill Mark. It also takes fewer lines of code to render the images, he said.

Though a few people who watched the demonstration said they were underwhelmed, Van Baker, an analyst at Gartner, said it was a good indicator of Larrabee's processing power. Ray tracing is a good test for a graphics card because it requires a lot of processing power, and few consumer graphics cards on the market today can do ray tracing at that level, he said. Many graphics cards use other vector processing techniques that fail to render such lifelike images, Baker said.

The Larrabee processor can perform the same type of tasks as a multi-core CPU, but it delivers more parallelism, Maloney said. "Lots of things about this product get us super-excited," he said.

Larrabee chips are due to ship in 2010, though Intel hasn't provided a more precise ship date. It has also yet to disclose several basic details about the chip, including how many processor cores it will have. Intel said it is already shipping early versions of Larrabee graphics cards to game developers.

While Larrabee will initially be a discrete graphics chip, the company could use some of the technology behind it to create graphics cores that can be integrated into CPUs, said Steve Smith, vice president and general manager of Intel's digital enterprise group.

Intel has characterized Larrabee as a graphics processor with "many" cores, intended for graphics work and high-performance parallel processing.

Each core can process multiple compute threads, which can certainly benefit multithreaded applications, Baker said. But Intel has found it difficult to get developers to program in parallel, so getting software developed that can take full advantage of the chip's capabilities could be a problem for Intel, he said.

The graphics card will support DirectX and OpenCL parallel programming models, Maloney said. Microsoft's Windows OS builds in native support for DirectX, while Apple's Mac OS X has native support for OpenCL.

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