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An Overview

Larrabee: Intel's New GPU

The first thing that needs to be pointed out about Larrabee is that it’s not like other GPUs. In fact, it’s not really a GPU at all. As the diagram shows, Larrabee is really a group of several very simple x86 processors, executing instructions in order, and extended with a vector floating point unit (FPU) operating on 512-bit vectors (16 single precision floating-point numbers/integers or eight double-precision floating-point numbers). Each core has 256 KB of cache memory, and communication between processors and cache coherence is handled by a ring bus. The only components that suggest this isn’t just a highly-parallel CPU like the Cell are the texture units and the display interface.

The Cores In Detail: Something New and Something (Very) Old

Like IBM with its Cell architecture, Intel made the following observation: the most demanding applications for processing power generally have a very linear flow of instructions. There are few branchings and dependencies between instructions, so consequently, modern processors, which devote a large part of their total die area to control logic (branch prediction and dynamic instruction scheduling), are not really suited for this type of task.

For an equal number of transistors, rather than following the usual design track by integrating two or four of these “big” processors on a die, it makes much more sense for tasks like this to use a large number of small, much simpler processors. Intel has issued a comparative table justifying its choice:

As the chart shows, for an equal die area and comparable power consumption, the in-order cores (not identical to the ones Larrabee uses) offer a vector instruction throughput 20 times greater than a Core 2 Duo at the same clock frequency. Having made that choice, it was time to design the new processors themselves. The choice of the instruction set was really no choice at all. Since Larrabee was to be Intel’s Trojan horse, with which it would enter the discrete GPU world using its x86 architecture, the architecture for the instruction set was already a known quantity.

Still the choice can seem surprising, since the x86 instruction set is complex (with its CISC architecture) and its support of all the instructions that have been added over the course of its history has an impact on the number of transistors needed compared to RISC architectures.

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