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AMD Fusion: How It Started, Where It’s Going, And What It Means

Heterogeneous Roots

In the end, did Fusion matter? Quite simply, it changed the direction of modern mainstream computing. All parties agree that discrete graphics will remain firmly entrenched at the high-end. But according to IDC, by the end of 2011, nearly three out of every four PC processors sold were integrated, hybrid processors—APUs, as AMD calls them. AMD adds that half of all processors sold across all computing device segments, including smartphones, are now what it refers to as APUs.

APU Sales

Ubiquitous as that might sound, though, the APU is not the endgame; it’s only the beginning. Simply having two different cores on the same die may improve latency, but the aim of Fusion was always to leverage heterogeneous computing in the most effective ways possible. Having discrete CPUs and GPUs each chew on the application tasks best suited to them is still heterogeneous computing. Having those two cores present on the same die is merely an expression of heterogeneous computing more suited to certain system goals, such as optimizing high performance in a lower power envelope. Of course, this assumes that programs are being written to leverage a heterogeneous compute model—and most are not.

Ageia was one of the first companies in the PC world to address this problem. In 2004, a fledgling semiconductor company named Ageia purchased a physics middleware company called NovodeX, and thus was born the short-lived field of physics processing units (PPUs), available on third-party standalone cards. For games coded to leverage Ageia’s PhysX engine, these cards could radically improve physics simulation and particle motion. PhysX caught on with many developers, and Nvidia bought Ageia in 2008. Over time, Nvidia phased out the PPU side of the technology and supported PhysX on any CUDA-ready 8-series or newer GeForce card.

BFG PPU

Ageia’s fame drew the attention of Dave Orton and others at ATI. Even before the AMD merger, ATI had been working to enable general-purpose GPU computing (GPGPU) in its Radeon line. In 2006, the R580 GPU became the first ATI product to support GPGPU, which the company soon branded as Stream. The confusing nomenclature of Stream, FireStream, stream processors, and so on gives some indication to the initial lack of cohesion in this effort. Stanford’s folding@home distributed computing project became ATI’s first showcase for just how mind-blowing the GPGPU performance advantage could be.

The trouble was that Stream never caught on. Nvidia seized its 2006/2007 execution upswing, capitalized on the confusion reigning at AMD at that time, and solidified CUDA as the go-to technology for GPGPU computing. But this is a bit like describing a goldfish as the hugest creature in the tank when all of the other fish are guppies. Despite a lot of notoriety in gaming and academic circles, GPGPU development remained very niche and far from mainstream awareness.

"AMD has been promoting GPU compute for a really long time," says Manju Hegde, former CEO of Ageia and now corporate vice president of heterogeneous applications and developer solutions at AMD. "But eight years ago, it wasn’t right. Five years ago, it wasn’t right. Now, with the explosion of the low-power market, smartphones and tablets, it’s right. And for developers to create the kinds of experiences that normal PC users expect, they have to go to GPU computing—but it has to be based on something easy like HSA."

  • mayankleoboy1
    Wont the OS have to evolve along with the HSA to support it? Can those unified-memory-space and DMA be added to Windows OS just with a newer driver?

    With Haswell coming next year, Intel might just beat AMD at HSA. They need to deliver a competitive product.
    Reply
  • Dupontrocks11
    Perhaps Skynet will start off as an APU manufacturer. Lol.
    Reply
  • pharoahhalfdead
    Informative article that kept my attention. Propz
    Reply
  • Reynod
    Great article ... well balanced.

    I think you were being overly kind about the current CEO's ability to guide the company forward.

    Dirk Meyer's vision is what he is currently leveraging anyway.

    A company like that needs executive leadership from someone with engineering vision ... not a beancounter from retail sales of grey boxes.

    History will agree with me in the end ... life in the fast lane on the cutting edge isn't the place for accountants and generic managers to lead ... its for a special breed of engineers.
    Reply
  • jamesyboy
    AMD is the jack-of-all-trades and the master-at-none. Even the so called "balancing" that they're supposed to be doing is already being done better by Nvidia, ARM, and now Intel with Medfield. AMD doesn't stand a chance trying to bring a ARM like balance to the x86 field. I have no idea what they were thinking when they decided that they'd rather be stuck in between mobile and desktop. They have all of this wonderful IP, all those wonderful engineers. I fear that what's best for AMD will be to leave the x86 battlefield all together, and become a company like Qualcomm or Samsung, and leverage their GPU IP into the Arm world--i fear this because a world where Intel is the only option, is one that's far worse off for the consumer.

    They don't have the efficiency of Ivy Bridge, or Medfield, they don't have the power of Ivy Bridge, and they're missing out on this round of the Discrete Graphics battle (they were ahead by so far, but nvidia seems to have pulled an Ace out of their butt with the 600 series). So what exactly IS AMD doing well? HTPC CPUs? Come on! The adoption rate for the system they're proposing with HSA is between 5 and 10 years off....and because they moved too early, and won't be able to compete until then, they have to give the technology away for free to attract developers.

    Financially, this a company's (and a CEOs) worst nightmare...they're too far ahead of their time, and the hardware just isn't there yet.

    This will end of being just like the tablet in the late '90s, and early '00s. It won't catch on for another decade, and another company will spark, and take advantage of the transition properly, much to AMD's chagrin.

    I'm not sure if it was the acquisition of ATI that made AMD feel like it was forced to do this so early, but they aren't going to force the market to do anything. This work should have been done in parallel while making leaps and bounds within the framework of the current model.

    You can't lead from behind.

    I've always been a fan of AMD. They've brought me so e of the nicest machines I've ever owned...the one that had me, and still have me most excited. But I have, and always will buy what's fastest, or best at the job I need the rig for. And right now...and for the foreseeable future, AMD can't compete on any platform, on any field, any where, at anytime.

    AMD just bet it's entire company, the future of ATI (or what was the lovely discrete line at AMD), the future of their x86 platform, and their manufacturing business all on something that it wasn't sure it would even be around to see. They bet the farm on a dream.

    Nonetheless, i disagree that you were being overly kind about the CEOs ability to lead the company. I think you're being overly kind for thinking this company has a viable business model at all. Theyll essentially have to become a KIRF (sell products that are essentially a piece o' crud, dirt cheap) f a compay to stay alive.

    This is mostly me ragin at the fail. The writer of this article deserves whatever you journalist have for your own version of a Nobel.

    This was a seriously thorough analysis, and by far the best tech piece i've seen all year. We need more long-form journalism in the world, for i her way too many people shouting one line blurbs, with zero understanding of the big picture.But i have to say, that while this artucle is 98% complete, you missed speaking anout the fact that this company is a company...an enterprise that survives only with revenue.
    Reply
  • A Bad Day
    I really enjoyed this article.

    Now, does anyone want to play Crysis in software rendering with max eyecandy?
    Reply
  • SteelCity1981
    Kaveri looks very impressive reaching the 1 TFLOP milestone on a APU.
    Reply
  • army_ant7
    @jamesyboy:
    It's not over until the fat lady sings. As I read your post, I felt that you were missing a (or the) big point of the APU and this article.

    It's about how software is developed nowadays and how there is such a huge reserve of potential performance waiting to be tapped into. I could imagine that if future software bite into this "evolution" to more GPGPU programming then I would expect a huge jump in performance even on the current, or shall I see currently being phased out, Llano APU's.

    Yes, current discrete GPU systems would improve in performance as well significantly I would think, but to the same degree that APU's would improve, especially with the new technologies to be implemented like unifying memory spaces, etc? I don't think so.

    I'm not saying that you're totally wrong. AMD might end up croaking, but we can't say for certain 'til it happens. Don't you agree? :-) (I'm not picking any fights BTW. Just sharing my thoughts.)
    Reply
  • blazorthon
    jamesyboyAMD is the jack-of-all-trades and the master-at-none. Even the so called "balancing" that they're supposed to be doing is already being done better by Nvidia, ARM, and now Intel with Medfield. AMD doesn't stand a chance trying to bring a ARM like balance to the x86 field. I have no idea what they were thinking when they decided that they'd rather be stuck in between mobile and desktop. They have all of this wonderful IP, all those wonderful engineers. I fear that what's best for AMD will be to leave the x86 battlefield all together, and become a company like Qualcomm or Samsung, and leverage their GPU IP into the Arm world--i fear this because a world where Intel is the only option, is one that's far worse off for the consumer.They don't have the efficiency of Ivy Bridge, or Medfield, they don't have the power of Ivy Bridge, and they're missing out on this round of the Discrete Graphics battle (they were ahead by so far, but nvidia seems to have pulled an Ace out of their butt with the 600 series). So what exactly IS AMD doing well? HTPC CPUs? Come on! The adoption rate for the system they're proposing with HSA is between 5 and 10 years off....and because they moved too early, and won't be able to compete until then, they have to give the technology away for free to attract developers.Financially, this a company's (and a CEOs) worst nightmare...they're too far ahead of their time, and the hardware just isn't there yet.This will end of being just like the tablet in the late '90s, and early '00s. It won't catch on for another decade, and another company will spark, and take advantage of the transition properly, much to AMD's chagrin.I'm not sure if it was the acquisition of ATI that made AMD feel like it was forced to do this so early, but they aren't going to force the market to do anything. This work should have been done in parallel while making leaps and bounds within the framework of the current model.You can't lead from behind.I've always been a fan of AMD. They've brought me so e of the nicest machines I've ever owned...the one that had me, and still have me most excited. But I have, and always will buy what's fastest, or best at the job I need the rig for. And right now...and for the foreseeable future, AMD can't compete on any platform, on any field, any where, at anytime.AMD just bet it's entire company, the future of ATI (or what was the lovely discrete line at AMD), the future of their x86 platform, and their manufacturing business all on something that it wasn't sure it would even be around to see. They bet the farm on a dream.Nonetheless, i disagree that you were being overly kind about the CEOs ability to lead the company. I think you're being overly kind for thinking this company has a viable business model at all. Theyll essentially have to become a KIRF (sell products that are essentially a piece o' crud, dirt cheap) f a compay to stay alive.This is mostly me ragin at the fail. The writer of this article deserves whatever you journalist have for your own version of a Nobel.This was a seriously thorough analysis, and by far the best tech piece i've seen all year. We need more long-form journalism in the world, for i her way too many people shouting one line blurbs, with zero understanding of the big picture.But i have to say, that while this artucle is 98% complete, you missed speaking anout the fact that this company is a company...an enterprise that survives only with revenue.
    Funny, but last I checked, AMD's Radeon 7970 GHz edition is the fastest single GPU graphics card for gaming right now, not the GTX 680 anymore. Furthermore, AMD can compete in many markets in both GPU and CPU performance and price. AMD's FX series has great highly threaded integer performance for its price (much more than Intel) and the high end models can have one core per module disabled to make them very competitive with the i5s and i7s in gaming performance. Going into the low end ,the FX-4100 and Llano/Trinity are excellent competitors for Intel. Some of AMD's APUs can be much faster in both CPU and GPU performance than some similarly priced Intel computers, especially in ultrabooks and notebooks where Intel uses mere dual-core CPUs that either lack Hyper-Threading or have such a low frequency that Hyper-Threading isn't nearly enough to catch AMD's APUs. Is this always the case? No, not at all. However, you ignore this when it happens (which isn't rare) and you ignore many other achievements of AMD.

    As of right now, there is no retail Nvidia card that has better performance for the money (at least when overclocking is concerned) than some comparably performing AMD cards anymore. The GTX 670 ca't beat the Radeon 7950 in overclocking performance and it can't beat the 7950 in price either. The GTX 680 is no more advantageous against the Radeon 7970 and 7970 GHz Edition. I'm not saying that these cards don't compete well or that they don't have great performance for the money (that would be lying), but they don't win outside of power consumption, which, although important, isn't significant enough of an advantage when the numbers are this close.

    Whether or not AMD will fail as a company remains to be seen. Maybe they will, maybe they won't. However, if you want to say that they do, then the supporting info that you give should be more accurate.
    Reply
  • army_ant7
    blazorthonAs of right now, there is no retail Nvidia card that has better performance for the money (at least when overclocking is concerned) than some comparably performing AMD cards anymore. The GTX 670 ca't beat the Radeon 7950 in overclocking performance and it can't beat the 7950 in price either. The GTX 680 is no more advantageous against the Radeon 7970 and 7970 GHz Edition.Interesting. I didn't know that. :-) Is this generally true about the whole GCN lineup vs. the whole Keppler line up? I'm talking about overclocking performance of course since by default, the high-end Nvidia cards are more recommended, well at least the GTX 670. :-)
    Reply