上网时间: 2013年04月01日? 作者:Rick Merritt? 我来评论 【字号: ? ?小】


Nvidia's road to Denver still in the shadows

Rick Merritt

In 2007, Nvidia quietly began work on Project Denver, starting a long hard climb toward being a supplier of general-purpose microprocessors. At CES in 2011 it revealed the goal of that program was to create a soup-to-nuts family of SoCs serving everything from laptops to supercomputers.

At its annual Graphics Technology Conference (GTC) here Tuesday (March 19) Nvidia revealed the first commercial chip it expects to emerge from that program. The chip, Parker, will arrive in 2015 packing a 2014 graphics core called Maxwell and a new 64-bit custom ARM core.

Details are still scarce, but what Nvidia did share shines just a little light on the microprocessor road map for the industry, enough to give me pause about the future of computing.

Nvidia’s next big move is Logan. This Tegra 5 SoC will put a Kepler-class Nvidia graphics processor in a chip aimed at smartphones and tablets. It will be the first ARM-based mobile SOC to support its Cuda software environment for running general purpose graphics (GPGPU) programs. Previously, Cuda worked in PCs and servers that used an x86 host.

Click on image to enlarge.

Nvidia chief executive Jen-Hsun Huang shows the road to Parker, the first Project Denver chip.

To some extent the part plays catch up with its competitors that already provide similar features using OpenCL, said Kevin Krewell, a principal analyst with The Linley Group (Mountain View, Calif.).

Nvidia demonstrated it already has Cuda running on a new board called Kayla that sports a Kepler graphics chip and Tegra 3 ARM processor. Krewell called Kayla “a science experiment and a software development platform” to seed programming work for Logan which will sample this year and be in production in 2014.

The race to unified memory

The next big step is Maxwell, Nvidia’s next big graphics core. It will arrive in 2014 sporting a capability to share virtual memory between the graphics and ARM host processor.

This is a key step in simplifying the job of programming chips that pack graphics and host ARM or x86 processors. It is so important, AMD launched an alliance called the Heterogeneous Systems Architecture (HSA) group to set open standards for how to do it. HSA includes ARM, Imagination Technologies, Microsoft, Qualcomm and many others.

Analysts such as Krewell and Patrick Moorhead expect Nvidia will probably borrow the open techniques the HSA group defines and plug them into Cuda, using different marketing names. That’s pretty much what Intel did with its 64-bit instructions because AMD defined the 64-bit x86 architecture first working with Microsoft and the Windows giant refused to support two different flavors of the technology in its operating systems.

But this time, the move to a new architecture is a three-way game with AMD, Nvidia and Intel all competing. Presumably Intel is taking its own route to SoCs that share a common pool of cache coherent memory between graphics and x86 cores It likely will embrace both its current on-chip graphics cores and its external Xeon Phi. But it has yet to reveal its exact plans.

There’s another new wrinkle this time. Microsoft is not the only or even the biggest player in operating systems anymore. Google is set to displace it with Android as the client OS observers expect to run in the majority of tomorrow’s client computers.

So we have three competing microprocessor camps and two competing OS providers (three if you count Apple which will do its own thing) all racing toward one common architecture. There could be a lot of twists ahead in this road map.

Parker arrives amid OS uncertainty

For its part, Nvidia will combine its Maxwell graphics core with its first 64-bit ARM core to create Parker in 2015. It will be made in a FinFET process which by then should be readily available as a sort of second-generation 20-nm node from Globalfoundries and TSMC.

Parker will certainly power smartphones and tablets as a Tegra 6. What’s less clear is whether it will have a life in notebooks, desktops or servers.

Microsoft’s WindowsRT for ARM—aimed at tablets--has failed to gain significant traction and badly needs a makeover. Until it gains traction in tablets, Microsoft is not likely to try to drive it into notebooks and desktops. And we are still waiting to hear anything about Windows Server for ARM.

Meanwhile, Google has been mum on any plans for Android in notebooks or desktops. No surprise really--it is only now well positioned for a dominant role in smartphones and tablets.

Google has experimented with a slimmer Chrome OS layer that essentially puts a browser on a cloud-based laptop client. The effort, now in a second generation, has failed to gain much traction.

But, interestingly, the Google exec (Sundar Pichai) who ran the Chrome OS initiative was put in charge of a merged Chrome OS and Android group. Android founder Andy Rubin left the team to explore other opportunities, as the old euphemism goes.

One more wrinkle: Nvidia said in 2015 it will also roll out Volta, a next generation graphics processor using stacked memory with through silicon vias. It did not say if it will use a 2.5-D technology pioneered by Xilinx that lays memory and graphics cores next to each other on a common substrate or actually stack them on top of each other, a more ambitious goal.

Click on image to enlarge.

Huang discloses the 2015 graphics chip Volta chip with stacked memory.

Analysts say AMD and others are likely to do some form of graphics and memory stack by 2015. I suspect no one knows yet whether the 2.5- or 3-D techniques will be the best fit come 2015. But both these techniques are getting a lot of attention as the next steps in silicon process technology become increasingly costly and complex due to the delays in extreme ultraviolet lithography.

So at GTC we learned just a little bit of what Nvidia plans to do over the next couple years. The result is we now see how little we know about what anyone will do in the client computing space for the next two or three years. But we can see it is going to be something of a wild ride.

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