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Intel shoves Larrabee and visualization goldmine to 2010

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Intel wants to visualize like it's 1999.

Physically, we were sitting yesterday in an auditorium at Intel's Santa Clara headquarters. But our mind kept transporting to SGI's old 3D wonder lab where it would show off the latest in graphics technology and high-end visualization systems. That's because Intel kept dishing out slideware on its visualization ambitions and graphics product plans.

Over in the desktop world, Intel was just outed as having integrated graphics barely capable of running Microsoft's Vista operating system. With server chips, however, Intel plans to charge ahead and become a major player in the growing world of graphics-rich high performance computing systems.

A product code-named Larrabee sits at the heart of Intel's visualization push. Intel refuses to say much about the part other than to describe it as a "many-core," re-programmable processor that will work as an x86-based standalone graphics product. In addition, Intel's CEO Paul Otellini, speaking to investors, said Larrabee will include a new vector processing unit and a new vector instruction set.

The product will ship in "late 2009, early 2010," according to Otellini.

While Intel will likely direct Larrabee at the discrete graphics market and PCs, it will also push the chip at server customers. Intel will mimic work already underway at AMD/ATI, Nvidia and with FPGA vendors to place certain software jobs on heavily-cored co-processors. Such hardware can demonstrate massive speed-ups on tasks not handled as well by general purpose chips.

Intel's attention to this type of product makes sense given the rise in high performance computing spending. The chip maker, for example, expects oil and gas companies to go from buying 50 teraflops of computing power in 2006 and 180 teraflops in 2007 to 400 teraflops in 2008 and 700 teraflops in 2009. The energy concerns use all of this computing muscle to aid their oil and gas exploration operations and - like labs, media companies and automobile makers - to turn large data sets into graphical models.

If you're SGI, Intel's new attention to the visualization market is both sad and encouraging.

Years ago, SGI committed to Intel's Itanium processor and then watched as its business evaporated, leaving the company in bankruptcy. The financial woes forced SGI to abandon a once glorious demonstration center at its plush Mountain View offices in favor of very little at its current digs in a nondescript Silicon Valley office park.

During four-hours of presentations in front of investors yesterday, Intel failed to mention Itanic a single time. The processor, while a central part of HP's high-end server line, has become the part that must not be named.

Intel would prefer that customers think about using Xeon-based servers in conjunction with third-party graphics bits for now and then Xeon in tandem with Larrabee later. SGI has been reworking its product line accordingly, placing far more emphasis on Xeon-based systems these days.

Otellini stressed that bringing the Intel Architecture to the graphics space will ease the developers' burden. "It makes it very easy to program machine." Er, we'd like to see Otellini bang out a few custom, multi-threaded routines for Larrabee and get back to us on that one.

The Blessed Upgrade

Intel, of course, could not escape mentioning virtualization in addition to visualization during its chat with investors.

The company, which has invested in VMware, is happier than a clown huffing nitrous oxide about virtualization, since the horsepower- and memory-hungry software demands that customers upgrade their systems.

Customers these days tend to target their more mundane applications at virtualized boxes. This trend has led analysts to suggest that customers will buy fewer systems as they cram less demanding applications onto single physical boxes. Not so, according to Otellini. Everyone needs to upgrade in order to enjoy the virtualization magic, which translates into a healthy refresh cycle.

Once the virtualization well dries up, Intel should have Larrabee primed to go after the booming HPC market. And it's going after the mega-data center set too, saying that it hears one-tenth of all hardware buys went to service providers last year. ®

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