Intel won't give up on Larrabee, analysts say

Elements of the current and future Larrabee graphics processors could be used in CPUs and high-performance computing

Although Intel delayed its first stand-alone graphics processor, code-named Larrabee, the company could use elements of the chip's design and architecture in future products, analysts said on Monday.

Intel on Friday delayed the commercial release of Larrabee, which was due to become available next year, as the company fell behind in the processor's development. Intel said it is committed to delivering the graphics chip and will discuss further plans next year, but would initially offer Larrabee as a software platform for high-performance applications. It will launch samples of Larrabee for developers next year, along with tools to let them write and test applications for it.

"This is not the end of Larrabee as a graphics processor -- this is a pause," said Jon Peddie, president of Jon Peddie Research, a market research firm specializing in graphics cards, in a blog entry. The next version of Larrabee could be offered as a co-processor that could work along with CPUs for faster processing of high-performance computing applications, Peddie said.

Analysts also said some attributes from existing and future Larrabee architectures could make their way inside future integrated graphics chips that go into CPUs. The benefits of such integration would be similar to performance improvements provided by graphics processors as compute engines to accelerate gaming and Flash applications, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research. Processors with elements of Larrabee could appear in the 2011-to-2012 timeframe, he said.

Intel in the past has said that some technology behind Larrabee may be used to produce graphics cores that can be integrated into CPUs. The company is set to launch its first processor with integrated graphics later this month, an Intel spokesman said.

However, graphics cards are very difficult to design, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64.

"You want to make sure you have it right before you integrate it into a CPU," Brookwood said. The next generation of Larrabee will first need to come out as a stand-alone graphics card and deliver proven performance after which it can be integrated into CPUs. A flawed product could screw up a whole generation of CPUs, Brookwood said.

Larrabee has been characterized as a many-core processor that will be able to perform the same type of tasks as a multicore CPU, but deliver more parallelism by offering more pipelines to process data. The chip will be based on the x86 architecture and will be capable of full graphics-processing capabilities.

Peddie said that integrating the current Larrabee architecture into processors could be impossible, as it is comparable to putting more cores inside the CPU. However, he said it is conceivable that Intel might integrate some of Larrabee's specialized processors uniquely needed for graphics, like texture mapping processors, inside future CPUs.

But it was a smart decision by Intel to cancel the initial version of Larrabee, analysts said. The sales expectations around Larrabee as a discrete graphics card weren't high, and perhaps the processor didn't meet Intel's metrics of success, so it made financial sense to delay the product. "I don't see it as that big of a deal," McCarron said.

Competitive pressure also may have forced Intel back to the drawing board, Brookwood said. Larrabee was designed to compete with graphics cards from Advanced Micro Devices and Nvidia, which already offer products that deliver faster performance. Larrabee is already late, and it would not have been a competitive product by the time it hit the market, he said.

"Intel certainly has the resources to continue to invest in this area. I won't be surprised if they go back to the drawing board and design a next-generation part," Brookwood said.

Intel invested a lot of time and money in the development of Larrabee, but none of that is lost, Peddie said. Larrabee is an interesting architecture and paves the way for "serious potential and opportunity" as a significant co-processor in high-performance computing, Peddie said.

"Rather, that work provides the building blocks for the next phase," Peddie said.

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