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AMD Makes Its Own Cluster Luck With FireStream 9170

Chipmaker taps power of graphics processors for Q1 '08 offering of a specialized high-performance computing chip and SDK tools.

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The FireStream 9170 was developed with AMD's ATI graphics technology and in conjunction with GPU application work conducted in the academic research community, said Patricia Harrell, director of Stream Computing at the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based chipmaker.

The new stream processor, which will ship in the first quarter of 2008 for $1,999-per-unit, is the first to have a double-precision floating point, she said. Over the past few years, stream computing technologists have adapted GPUs to accelerate critical computational algorithms in mathematically demanding work such as computational chemistry, seismic processing and medical imaging. Harrell said the FireStream 9170 and its associated development tools were built for the HPC community, but that AMD believed the technology would eventually make its way to the commercial and consumer spaces as well.

The features and specs AMD is claiming for the FireStream 9170 include the double-precision floating point, two gigabytes of on-board memory, asynchronous DMA, 320 stream cores (or more than twice as many as Nvidia has on a rival stream computing product), and up to 500 gigaflops of compute power with performance coming in at three gigaflops-per-watt on a processor that chews up less than 150 watts. The silicon for the new processor is manufactured with the 55nm process.

In addition to the processor itself, AMD will make available a software development stack that includes compilers and libraries, as well as third-party tools being built by partners such as Rapidmind. The trick for getting HPC benefits from GPU technology is using "C" extensions to give HPC developers a familiar, high-level language for working with the processors, Harrell said. The first such language supported by AMD is called Brook+, based on a GPU programming language developed at Stanford University.

"The problem with [earlier ATI stream computing project] 'Close to the Metal' was that it was really difficult for HPC programmers to understand the GPU. So we wanted to let people in the HPC community program in something that felt like 'C'," Harrell said.

For companies that build HPC cluster solutions, like Waltham, Mass.-based system builder Source Code, the FireStream 9170 processor and SDK looks pretty good on paper.

"Three gigaflops-per-watt is pretty impressive," said Eric Aske, director of HPC integration at Source Code. "And we're very impressed with the prospect of double-precision floating point, especially compared to our other GPU or FPGA options."

The FireStream 9170 is "definitely a huge HPC play," added Brian Corn, VP of marketing and development at Source Code. "It looks like you can just plug that sucker in, turn off the graphics capabilities, and add 320 cores into the system. Their competition only has 128 cores, and this is 320 cores at the same power consumption.

"And just think about the number of cores there, how many 1U processor boxes you'd have to build to get the same processing power. This is really where AMD plays, in this HPC space. And it just shows what they got with ATI, that this was a really good property for AMD to acquire."

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