Intel keeps number of Larrabee cores under wraps

Intel plans to detail the architecture of its upcoming Larrabee chip at the SIGGRAPH conference on Aug. 12, but the company will keep one important aspect of the chip under wraps: the number of cores it will have.

When released in 2009 or 2010, the first Larrabee chip will have many x86 processor cores and support OpenGL and DirectX, allowing the chip to run existing games and software, Intel said. The chip will also find a home in applications that require serious power, such as software used in the financial industry and academic research.

Larrabee is part of Intel's tera-scale research program, which the company bills as the largest technology research investment it has ever made. That's a significant statement given Intel spent $1.47 billion on research and development during the second quarter -- more than the $1.35 billion that rival Advanced Micro Devices recorded in revenue for the same period.

Intel's goal with Larrabee is to delivering full graphics-processing capabilities with an x86-based chip, said Larry Seiler, chief architect of Intel's visual computing group. The chip will be Intel's first targeted at the gaming market and industries that require high-performance parallel processing and graphics power, like oil and gas exploration.

While Intel did not reveal how many cores the first Larrabee chip will have or discuss other product details, the company showed journalists a presentation that detailed how the chip's performance can scale using from eight to 48 cores. That number matches earlier comments by senior Intel executives that Larrabee will eventually have dozens of individual processor cores.

The Larrabee cores are based on the design of the Pentium processor cores, with enhancements such as a wide vector processing unit, 64-bit extensions, multithreading, and pre-fetching, Intel said. The chip will also have dedicated co-processors to handle specific graphics functions, such as textures.

The array of processor cores contained in Larrabee combines the parallel processing capabilities of GPUs with the x86 architecture, improving application and graphics performance, Seiler said. The chip will make graphics rendering faster, he said.

While steps like rasterization and pixel shading are piled up to render graphics using a GPU, Larrabee bundles those up to render graphics in just three steps, Seiler said.

Although it sounds promising, Larrabee needs programmers to develop applications that tap the chip's power. Broad software support and technical expertise surrounding the x86 architecture translates to a large potential number of Larrabee programmers, said Tom Forsyth, a software engineer at Intel.

However, exporting Larrabee-specific programs to other platforms -- like gaming consoles -- could be a problem, Intel executives admitted. Intel is trying to offset that with plans to support more software environments. It is also working with companies including Apple and Microsoft to develop parallel programming tools.

The Larrabee chip will compete with graphics processors from vendors including Nvidia and AMD.

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