Intel Partners, Rivals Not Surprised By Demise Of Larrabee Chip

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"The fact that a company with Intel's technical prowess and financial resources has struggled so hard to succeed with parallel computing shows just how exceptionally difficult a challenge this is," said Victor Martinez, a spokesman for Santa Clara, Calif.-based Nvidia.

Intel, also headquartered in Santa Clara, confirmed late last week that it would not be shipping a discrete graphics product in 2010 as formerly planned. Instead, the chip giant's ambitious project to build the first commercially available graphics processor to use x86-compatible cores -- like those found in PC and server CPUs made by Intel and AMD -- has seemingly been disappeared from Intel's mainstream product roadmap, indefinitely.

For now Intel appears to have conceded that its first major attempt at a discrete graphics product since 1998's ill-fated i740 AGP cards had produced chips that were too large and demanded too much power for use in today's mainstream computers.

System builders who work with all three companies were also unsurprised by the development but several suggested that Intel could still have a Larrabee-based product some day.

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"The Larrabee thing, while interesting, always sounded to us like it was a little far off in the future," said Kevin Jacoby, CEO of Rain Recording, a Ringwood, N.J.-based maker of high-performance audio workstations.

"We never got [Larrabee] samples. And to be honest, there are just a lot of great, high-end GPUs already out there that we rely on for the video integrations that we've been doing," he said. Still, Jacoby said, despite the apparent setback, "there's so much good product coming out of Intel these days, they'll manage to keep themselves on top."

One Bay Area-based system builder was more critical of Intel's misstep.

"[Larrabee's cancellation] was there for everybody to see a long time ago, if you followed the developments. Basically, they put it out of its misery," said the source, who asked not to be named. "Apart from showing it at IDF, I doubt that anybody outside of the company ever actually saw it," he said, referring to a widely panned Larrabee demo at September's Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco.

But the system builder source said that Intel could have still have a Larrabee product for high-performance systems, if not the mainstream graphics cards the chip giant once promised. For now, Intel has only stated that it will make Larrabee hardware available as a development platform for software engineers.

A spokesperson for Sunnyvale, Calif.-based AMD claimed that Intel's Larrabee project was flawed from the start.

"It really comes down to design philosophy. GPUs are hard to design and you can't design one with a CPU-centric approach that utilizes existing x86 cores," AMD's Phil Hughes said Monday. AMD, which acquired graphics chip maker ATI Technologies in 2006, plans to release its own major new products in 2011 based on a processor design called Fusion that will integrate CPU and GPU capabilities on a single computer chip.

AMD's Fusion and similar initiatives by its rivals Intel and Nvidia are attempts to develop what is called "heterogeneous computing" -- the coupling of the CPU's supremacy at sequential computing with the GPU's strength at parallel computing to process workloads in the smartest, fastest way possible.

Intel has its own plans for full CPU-GPU integration on its roadmap of System-on-Chip (SoC) products, and is also building a graphics controller chip that will share the same processor package as the CPU in upcoming products like the first 32-nanometer Core i5, Core i3 and Pentium processors scheduled for release in January.

Nvidia, also based in Santa Clara, does not make CPUs and perhaps had the most to fear from a strong discrete graphics offering from Intel. But the scuttling of Larrabee offers both Nvidia and AMD "more running room to establish themselves in GPU computing, a whole new market that uses high-end graphics hardware and specialized software to take on difficult general computing tasks," said Roger Kay principal analyst at Endpoint Technologies Associates.

As for Intel, it did the right thing to suspend Larrabee for the time being, according to industry analyst Jon Peddie.

"Intel has made a hard decision and we think a correct one. ... We think this makes a lot of sense, and leaves the door open for Intel to take a second run at the graphics processor market. The nexus of compute and visualization ... is clearly upon us, and it's too big and too important for Intel not to participate in all aspects of it," Peddie wrote Sunday on his blog.