Intel's Knights Corner may do high-end graphics

Intel is often derided by its competitor AMD for not having a convincing high-performance graphics offering. Comments made by John Hengeveld at the International Supercomputing Conference suggest that AMD could well be eating its words in the near future.

Intel's roundtable at the ISC 2011 event saw the unveiling of refined Knights Ferry cards: 16-lane PCI Express modules that pack multiple x86-addressable processing cores into their fan-cooled interiors. Aimed at the high-performance computing sector, they're not due for release until 2012 - at which time they'll have shrunk to 22nm, packed in more than 50 cores, and go under the name Knights Corner - but they look remarkably like another type of PCIe device: a graphics card.

While the Knights Ferry software development platform doesn't include any graphics output, the similarities are there: a fan forces air past a large heatsink to deal with the impressive heat output by the multiple processing cores, and there's 2GB of GDDR5 high-speed memory for holding data as it is processed by the board.

The Many Integrated Core - or MIC - architecture on which Knights Ferry and Knights Corner are built is even partly based on work carried out by Intel for the since-cancelled 'Larrabee' graphics card project. With so many similarities, what's to stop Intel taking on AMD and Nvidia with a high-performance graphics card of its own?

Speaking on the subject exclusively to thinq_ following the event, Intel's director of technical compute marketing and noted HPC evangelist John Hengeveld admitted there were similarities. "Larrabee and MIC are aimed at different markets," he explained. "We tried to take the best out of what we learned and bring it to MIC."

Asked directly about the possibility of a dedicated graphics card from Intel, Hengeveld was cagey. "We haven't disclosed what our intentions are for high-performance graphics. The technology would work differently from MIC - it's not the same workload.

"There are challenges in moving from one to the other," Hengeveld explained, before admitting that "Intel may or may not want to take these challenges."

Hengeveld's not-quite-a-denial comes as rumours spread of an Intel-branded PCI Express SSD dubbed the 720 Series, referenced by Intel veep Kirk Skaugen at the ISC event but officially neither confirmed nor denied. Should the rumour prove true and a mainstream PCI Express product be launched, that's one less barrier to Intel's launch of a high-performance graphics card.

With Larrabee having proven a flop, however, the company is likely to be biding its time. Whether it would take AMD and Nvidia head-on in the gaming market or aim its products at HPC and GPGPU offload - as a lower-end version of its supercomputer-oriented Knights Corner product, for example - remains to be seen.