Credit AMD with articulating a bold vision for change. The company, which in the past has been criticized for lack of decisiveness and direction, has put its stake in the ground.
"To me, that was the most impressive thing," said Jim McGregor, founder and principal analyst at Tirias Research. "Instead of just trying to be a player in the market, AMD is saying, 'This is the direction we are going in and this is what we are going to build.' "
Nathan Brookwood, principal of Insight64, also applauded the formation of the HSA Foundation—and the participation of several significant firms. Brookwood said AMD's heterogeneous computing push has its roots in the company's 2006 acquisition of ATI Technologies Inc., which brought the company the graphics technology now found in APUs.
"AMD's competitive position had eroded," Brookwood said. "If this [HSA] can put them on the map and cause them to become more relevant, good for AMD and good for the industry."
Brookwood said he believes the participation of other firms in the HSA Foundation will cause developers to pay more attention to it. "I think it will cause developers to take it more seriously, both because of the size of the potential base of equipment [using HSA] and because it's no longer just an AMD dream but a shared vision."
AMD made it clear that the founding partners of the HSA Foundation are just the beginning. The company hinted that it expects further momentum for the foundation in coming weeks and months, when more hardware vendors and, eventually, software firms, academic institutions and software developers are expected to join up.
"It will grow from here like a pyramid," Papermaster said.
Of course, AMD isn't the only company offering chips that combine both graphics and processors in the same integrated device. Intel, ever AMD's nemesis, has got that, too. But as Su noted, Intel makes its marketing hay primarily through brute force CMOS scaling, driving to new technology nodes much faster than its rivals. AMD, which is now fabless, simply cannot even attempt to keep pace.
According to Su, pushing through new technology nodes yields incremental improvements in microprocessor technology. A fundamental change to the computer programming model offers far more bang for the buck, she said.
"We are trying to change the way computing is done," Su said. Later, she added, "CMOS scaling is not going to continue forever."
Su, who joined AMD earlier this year after four years at Freescale Semiconductor, stressed that AMD's mindset has changed under Rory Read, who took over as president and CEO of the company last year. For years, Su said, AMD's mindset had been that it was acceptable to be the No. 2 players in microprocessors. "That's not okay anymore," Su said.
AMD has good reason to want to change the discussion from the old Intel versus AMD dynamic. Intel has held a dominant position over its smaller rival for many years, with market share typically of 80 to 85 percent. But the new direction also underscores a new competitive reality. With Windows 8, the first version of the OS to support ARM-based devices, and with both AMD and Intel seeking to expand their presence in the mobile world—where ARM's architecture dominates—the competitive landscape for AMD means more than just Intel.
"As long as AMD is going to continue to offer x86 products for PCs and servers, there's no way they aren't going to compete with Intel," Brookwood said. "But they are taking a very different approach."
I have always preferred AMD's processors and graphics for price performance in desktops for software that needs an x86 and Windows (normally used Mac or Linux). However, after a stint on Alchemy Semi Au1000 families, when AMD took that over, it withered away and almost died. MIPS vs ARM is a story of greed for licensing, otherwise why would an architecture that was 64-bit and multi-core long ago fail so badly. ARM gets a lot of hype, and I have programmed plenty of them, but AMD has the lost ground of Alchemy to recover before banking on ARM converts. Tell developers how the graphics work so we can use them without NDAs like Imagination or NVIDIA. Bare-metal is not Linux, so a binary and an API is useless. Proper data sheets are required.
I think they're on their way to finding their own niche in the market (and not just based on price). AMD's current A and E series APUs are successful products that accomplish quite a few objectives:
1. Good integrated GPU performance that surpasses Intel's offerings. AMD is right about CPU performance: beyond a certain point, you just don't need anymore. The value is in the graphics and gaming capability.
2. Competitive power consumption. This is the first time AMD has been competitive in this area.
That being said, Intel has taken note and is planning a counterattack. Their next generation CPU, Haswell, will have potentially 2.5x the performance of current Ivy Bridge processors. They might actually exceed AMD on pure GPU performance.
Given this reality, I think AMD's new focus on software through HSA is really the only logical next step. While Intel is busy brute forcing CPU, GPU performance and process nodes, AMD is executing its (shared) long-term vision for system architecture. And I do believe this will pay off for them. I am looking forward to Kaveri, the first APU to have a unified memory and a gpu with the GCN arcitecture.
David Patterson, known for his pioneering research that led to RAID, clusters and more, is part of a team at UC Berkeley that recently made its RISC-V processor architecture an open source hardware offering. We talk with Patterson and one of his colleagues behind the effort about the opportunities they see, what new kinds of designs they hope to enable and what it means for today’s commercial processor giants such as Intel, ARM and Imagination Technologies.