Intel Won't Give Up GPU Push, Analysts Say

Intel's decision to shelve its graphics chip code-named Larrabee is more an indication of the difficulty of building a new architecture than a sign that Intel's giving up on developing a general-purpose GPU, according to analysts. Demand for GPGPUs is growing in the HPC space, and analysts expect Intel to want to tap into that rather than cede the battle to AMD and Nvidia. This is also one more area in which the chip maker can expand the reach of its Intel Architecture.

Intel may have scrapped its "Larrabee" discrete graphics processor, but no one should mistake the move for a sign that the chip maker is moving away from the business of general-purpose GPUs, according to industry analysts.

Company officials are looking for ways to expand the Intel Architecture into new segments, and the demand for GPGPU computing is only going to grow. Intel's decision Dec. 4 to shelve the Larrabee project due to what a spokesperson called development issues was an indication of the kind of challenge the company is putting in front of itself as it works to create a product to compete with offerings from Nvidia and Advanced Micro Devices.

However, while the development of the first-generation Larrabee chip may not have been what Intel officials wanted, they can apply what they've learned to their next GPU effort, as well their work in developing many-core CPUs, analysts said.

"Building a highly parallel, high-performance product is really hard," Nathan Brookwood, an analyst with Insight 64, said in an interview. "It's taken ATI [which AMD bought in 2006 for $5.4 billion] and Nvidia many generations ... to get this kind of high performance out of a manageable chip."

John Spooner, an analyst with Technology Business Research, agreed.

Intel's decision says more about "the difficulty of bringing a new graphics architecture to market," Spooner said. "It's not a build-it-and-they-will-come situation for Intel. Intel needs to work with developers and get them on board if it [is going to have] any chance of selling a large number of Larrabee chips. The Nvidia/ATI model of high-end discrete graphics processors [plus] programming for them is working well enough. Developers understand it [and] are comfortable with it, and having a third horse in that race is a bigger undertaking than maybe Intel thought."

Intel officials have been talking about Larrabee since 2007, and after some delays, appeared set to release it in the first quarter of 2010. The company demonstrated Larrabee at its Intel Developer Forum in September, and at the Supercomputing show in November officials showed off an over-clocked Larrabee chip topping the 1-teraflop (trillion floating-point operations per second) mark.

However, instead Larrabee will be released as a development platform for computer graphics and the HPC (high-performance computing) space.