Intel’s details Nehalem, Larrabee and hexa-core CPU plans

Gordon Ung

If there’s one message Intel wants the world to take away from its Monday morning sit down with the enthusiaist media, it’s that all pistons are firing full bore.

The company demonstrated working silicon from its upcoming Nehalem CPU, talked up details about its return to the world of discrete graphics, and even said it had a hexa-core CPU ready to go. That's six dies in one package, for everyone who flunked tenth-grade Greek.

The biggest news announcement wasn't Nehalem, but Intel's reentry into the discrete graphics market. Although light on concrete details, Intel said Larrabee, the first discrete part, would not be ass-bad integrated graphics. Instead, it would be full-on performance GPU. Larrabee would feature “many” cores and performance would scale to the teraflop range. The new graphic part will also include a new vector instruction set and leverage Intel’s strong tool set to ease the pain of developing massively-parallel, general-purpose apps on GPUs. Intel believes that its tools will set it apart from ATI’s GPGPU and Nvidia’s CUDA frameworks, which offer similar functionality. Both initiatives are slowly gaining traction in the scientific and animation industries, but the tools to utilize GPUs for general purpose computing are still rough. Of course, this doesn't apply to consumers, who simply want to play the latest games on their PC, but Larrabee will cater to PC developers as well. The part will ship with full support for DirectX and OpenGL.

Intel didn’t detail which flavor of DirectX would be supported, but it would be current. Intel expects the first Larrabee parts to see the light of day sometime in late 2009 or early 2010. The company also cleared up some misconception about Larrabee. Many thought Larrabee cores would be the basis of its integrated graphics platform but on Monday, Intel denied that saying that it would continue to develop an integrated graphics core for normal computing. Integrated designs, however, will likely move from the chipset into the CPU package itself.

Besides Larrabee, Intel also released more on its upcoming Nehalem chip. Based on a 45nm process, Nehalem will utilize a modular design that will let Intel build CPUs featuring different numbers of cores and different cache configs, as well as integrated graphics and memory controllers. The initial consumer enthusiast version is codenamed Tylersburg. It will be a native quad-core design, and each core will feature a Hyperthreading-like capability to execute two threads simultaneously. Tylersburg will feature L3 cache and an integrated tri-channel DDR3 controller. That should offer boatloads of bandwidth but it’ll also mean more complicated memory configurations.

The demonstration Tylersburg machine featured six DIMM slots. To operate in tri-mode, three DIMMs have to be populated. However, the demonstration machine ran fine with just two DIMM slots occupied.

The desktop version of Nehalem is already up and running.

As expected, Nehalem does away with the front-side bus. The chip will communicate with the chipset and other CPUs via a high-speed interconnect Intel has dubbed Quick Path Interconnect. Tylersburg is expected near the end of this year. Intel also demonstrated its hexa-core CPU. Codenamed Dunnington, the chip is essentially a six-core Penryn.

Should upgraders expect such a beast to fill their existing Socket 775 boards? No, Intel said. Dunnington will only find a home in Xeon boards. Intel said that while there’s been some discussion about Dunnington on desktop, the resources to make it work in a desktop configuration don’t make fiscal sense. And since Dunnington will hit just after Nehalem, the company expects most performance desktop users to adopt Nehalem. Dunnington’s best fit is for workstation and servers where it should work as a drop-in replacement for current quad-core Xeons.

On tap beyond Nehalem, Intel said to expect Westmere, a 32nm shrink of Nehalem with some microarchitecture enhancements to keep performance up. A more significant upgrade is expected with the Sandy Bridge CPU core in 2009 or 2010.

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