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AMD looks to HSA Foundation to avoid AMD64 mistakes

Column Software developers hold the key to AMD's future
Fri Mar 08 2013, 15:01

AFTER what can only be described as a disappointing 2012, chip designer AMD is looking for the HSA Foundation to ensure that it will end 2013 with its head held high.

AMD's well publicised problems during 2012 include mass layoffs, financial losses and perhaps worst of all watching long-term rivals Intel and Nvidia move into markets where it seemed AMD couldn't go. However the firm's painful 2012 was the medicine it required and 2013 looks set to be a much better year, at least in terms of products, if not financially.

Sony did AMD a massive favour not only directly by picking its accelerated processing unit (APU) as the base for the Playstation 4 CPU but by spending a lot of time talking about AMD during its launch event rather than showing off the actual console. Sony's brand still has influence in the consumer electronics market, an area where AMD's brand has relatively little pull as evidenced by its balance sheet.

AMD is trying to build on the back of Sony's announcement by rallying developers to make use of its APU's characteristics, chiefly the very capable GPU fabbed on the same die as the CPU. The firm has enlisted a number of big name silicon and software vendors to sign up to the HSA Foundation in a bid to avoid what happened with AMD64 back in 2003.

The Heterogenous System Architecture (HSA) Foundation is a group of firms, primarily led by AMD, that sets software standards, APIs and architectures in a bid to lower the developer effort needed to make use of AMD's APUs and other system on chip (SoC) processors that sport programmable GPUs, such as an ARM Cortex A15 CPU mated to the firm's Mali T604 GPU.

Back in April 2003, AMD launched the first Opteron chip in New York and with it the AMD64 x86 64-bit instruction set. Four months later AMD launched the consumer version of the instruction set in Athlon 64 branded chips in Cannes, in what would effectively become Jerry Sanders' last big launch before retirement.

The problem that AMD perhaps didn't anticipate back in 2003 was that even with the best silicon - and make no mistake, AMD had the best silicon not just in 2003 but until Intel launched its Conroe chips branded as Core 2 Duo in 2006 - it needed software vendors to make use of AMD64 and not just x86. Microsoft did produce a late Windows XP AMD64 edition but it was pretty much a lost cause, and Microsoft soon followed that up with the catastrophic Windows Vista.

This time around AMD has told me, and no doubt countless other journalists and anyone else that will listen, that things will be different, and thankfully for consumers, they are. AMD is pushing the HSA Foundation a year before its first HSA chip will arrive, which is now slated for the tail end of 2013, meaning there should be software that takes advantage of AMD's latest chips around launch time.

AMD claims the work of the HSA Foundation is to make it easier for developers to use technologies such as unified memory access and having code run on both the CPU and GPU without having to learn languages such as OpenCL, which is a huge barrier to adoption. AMD will also be banking on the fact that at least two of the three next generation games consoles will be running its chips, which will make developers tune their code for its chips.

The HSA Foundation lacks two big name members, Intel and Nvidia, but that's far from a showstopper as ARM, Imagination, LG, Qualcomm, Samsung and Texas Instruments among others have all signed up to push this idea of treating the GPU as equal to the CPU. While Intel's reasons for not joining are obvious, since if more computing is done on the GPU its leadership in the CPU market becomes far less relevant, Nvidia's reasons for remaining aloof are somewhat less obvious.

Nvidia has been pushing GPU computing longer and perhaps even harder than AMD through its Tesla accelerators, but even though it supports programming languages aside from its own CUDA, its decision not to join the HSA Foundation could leave it isolated in the future. The fact is that Nvidia, perhaps more than the other ARM vendors in the HSA Foundation, needs to get developers to leverage its own GPU cores in Tegra if it wants to earn more wins with Tegra.

When I asked AMD whether it was comfortable working with a consortium that includes many of its rivals, the firm simply said that its technology should be able to stand on its own. The firm's answer is not typical PR, but in truth both AMD and Nvidia have much more expertise and experience in GPU design than larger semiconductor vendors such as Samsung and Texas Instruments, something those firms will need years to accumulate.

Interestingly, Nvidia's absence from the HSA Foundation could be because HSA's advantages are not so much in the gaming market but rather in applications and servers, both areas where AMD can pitch its upcoming system on chip APUs. Nvidia has made it clear that its unique selling point in the smartphone and tablet markets is in games, as shown by the firm's Tegra Zone marketing push, and given the number of major ARM chip vendors eyeing the low-power server market, it is understandable that the firm would rather push ahead in the smartphone and tablet markets where it already has a presence.

Intel's and Nvidia's absences aside, AMD's strategic decision to take a central role in the HSA Foundation and sign up just about every major semiconductor maker to support its software goals is a very good move and shows that the firm has learned the painful lesson of AMD64, and in a wider context it signals the growing importance of software ecosystems and developers' mindshare when it comes to selling silicon. µ


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