Unlocking the Potential of Graphics Processing: Technology Transfer at Its Finest

An Interview with Intel's Randi Rost by Chryste Sullivan
 

How do technology ideas propagate through the world at large and somehow become real? What does it take to capture the imaginations and talents of the students and researchers in universities worldwide and engage them in exploring and using a new graphics architecture? these questions occurred to me recently while thinking about Intel’s new graphics architectures. Years ago, British biologist lyall Watson postulated the Hundredth Monkey Phenomenon after observing that once a group of monkeys on a remote island learned how to wash their potatoes in water, monkeys on nearby islands were soon observed doing the same thing. Watson speculated that maybe there was a group consciousness that somehow percolated across vast distances among members of the same species. If such forces could be applied to transferring the technological skills involved in graphics processing, Randi Rost would be out of a job.

Randi, an experienced computer graphics professional at Intel, is responsible for getting the word out about new Intel graphics architectures. He finds ways to reach university students, educate and inform researchers, engage ISVs and developers, and, generally, prepare the ecosystem for Intel’s next-generation graphics architecture.

My curiosity piqued, I talked with Randi about his thoughts on the potential for visual computing on next-generation graphics architectures and the ways that Intel is helping build software engineering expertise in this area. Randi discussed the many ways he and Intel are trying to make the learning curve less steep.

How long have you been involved in computer graphics?
I discovered my passion for computer technology as a sophomore in high school. In the mid-70s, Minnesota became the first state to have a statewide computing network linking all the universities and secondary schools. I discovered my passion for graphics when I bought myself an Apple* II computer during my first year of college. I went to graduate school to study computer graphics specifically, and I’ve always pursued jobs that have been connected to this creative and fascinating field. I’ve worked at startups and at big companies like DEC and HP, always looking for the spots where interesting work was being done in computer graphics.

How did you get started with Intel?
The day after our high-end graphics development team at 3D Labs was laid off, Intel arrived to discuss an upcoming project involving major advances in graphics processing. It didn’t take very long to see that Intel was doing something that was going to really change the industry. I’m not just saying that because it’s a tagline, but given my background in the computer graphics industry, it was clear that Intel had a very compelling story with this new graphics architecture.

What kind of work is your group engaged in at Intel?
Our group is the primary development team for software development tools being created for Intel’s newest graphics architecture. We work very closely with the Intel teams that provide the drivers and hardware. We also work very closely with other groups within Intel, such as the Intel® Software Academic Community which has over 1000 participating universities.

What are you doing to bring universities on board with new Intel technologies?
I interact with ISVs and university collaborators, collecting feedback on the new software development tools for many-core graphics processors, providing training, and building industry momentum for Intel’s visual computing efforts.

Because many computer systems departments dropped their multi-core focus a few years back-or ignored it altogether-there’s a big push to encourage the development of a multi-core motif today. And graphics programmers can no longer avoid familiarity with new architectures and multi-threaded applications if they expect to maximize their own area of expertise in the future.

Hence, university support has grown more important. We felt that it was vital to get the message out to key visual computing researchers and leaders in academia who could put breakthrough visual computing technologies to use. So, Intel launched a program with a few top-flight research institutions. We make sure we have the right schools and that they’re getting the right support. In some cases, our support includes providing grants to universities that are leaders in the graphics research space. We educate them on the new graphics architecture and then give them the grants so that they can begin targeting their research efforts in that direction.

What is the value in getting universities involved early on?
Universities are where a lot of new technology gets dreamed up, where new algorithms get invented. Universities, particularly in the visual computing space, have been relatively shackled by the existing graphics hardware capabilities-where the entire rendering pipeline has been built into fixed-functionality silicon. This provides scant flexibility for researchers to innovate in term of rendering algorithms. recently, within the last half-dozen years, the hardware pipeline has gotten to be more programmable, but there are still a lot of constraints.

With our upcoming graphics architecture, built around a completely general-purpose CPU-based design, we’re basically removing all the constraints for the rendering pipeline. We’re telling researchers: "Hey, here’s an architecture where you can effectively do everything you want in software. There’s no fixed functionality to get in your way. If you want to experiment with new rendering algorithms, with ray tracing, with hybrid rendering systems, if you want to replace the rasterization unit, if you want to have procedural geometry so that you can render spheres analytically (rather than breaking them down into polygons)-all of those things are possible." It’s a completely open, general, high-performance platform for highly parallel floating-point workloads, such as graphics. And, the basic programming model is simple: C++ code that targets x86 cores.

Have you been able to attract any high-level talent with this initiative?
Yes. We’ve been able to attract interest from some of the world’s top visual computing researchers. With our targeted grant program, we’ve been able to get the attention of folks like Pat Hanrahan of Stanford. He is widely considered one of the top graphics researchers worldwide. This year we have a grant that we’ve provided to another top researcher, Fabio Pellacini of Dartmouth. He gets one or two of his papers published at SIGGrAPH every year. Collectively, the research talent that is already working on innovating with our new graphics architecture is mind-boggling.

We also get more than time and mindshare as university researchers look at what our next-generation graphics architectures can do.

A number of graduate students gain a great amount of exposure to our new graphics architecture, including the tools and APIs that we’re providing. Many of these individuals will become valuable contributors to the industry and, hopefully, some of them will be attracted to Intel and come to work for us when they graduate. We also intend to have a huge impact on computer science curriculum as it is taught in universities worldwide.

How can you teach developers and students about new graphics architectures before hardware is available?
When Intel is developing a new graphics architecture, we also create a pre-silicon development environment that allows us to develop code that runs on a simulated version of that new architecture.

The future of graphics computing is relying on a roadmap of ever-expanding processor cores and on software’s ability to capitalize on the massive performance benefits. But if we expect the next generation of graphics developers to hit the workforce ready to rock, somebody had better think beyond loosely slipping a couple of courses in parallel programming into the computer science curriculum.

One of the biggest challenges for developers is to devise ways to turn their graphics algorithms into code that runs well on massively parallel systems. We haven’t had a lot of history training people to think in parallel terms. As humans, we have traditionally serial thinking patterns as we move through time and life; we’re on a single path of execution. However, with many-core systems, the key is to think of ways to break problems into separate threads that can take advantage of the many cores in the system.

Thinking in parallel is vital; we’ve invested a lot of effort at Intel into getting this new way of thinking quickly developed. next-generation algorithm developers will need to understand and overcome a fundamental challenge: how to break down their problem into something that can be spread across a multitude of cores for maximum performance.

You don’t want the students and researchers to just learn a bit of coding. You want them to think-and to think in parallel. There are tremendous opportunities for this kind of work: combining parallelism and rendering algorithms in new ways.

How can visual computing researchers get involved with the program?

We are working on plans to expand our graphics-architecture research program. You can tell us about your interest and your current research directions by sending an e-mail to us at lrb.sdk@intel.com. And when our new graphics architecture is launched, we are hoping to have them in university research environments everywhere. our goal is to make the new Intel graphics architecture the innovation platform of choice for visual computing researchers.
 

Liberating Developers and Graphics Innovation


The conversation with Randi made one thing clear: developers will soon have a wide-open path to imagine, design, and create breathtaking works in the digital content creation realm without having to invest time or money in new development tool sets. At the end of our talk, Randi summed it up nicely, "You have the processing power and it’s completely flexible and completely general-you can innovate to your heart’s content."
 

About The Author

Randi Rost is a seasoned veteran in the field of high-performance graphics hardware and software products, with over 25 years of pioneering development experience. He is also the author of several books, including OpenGL* Shading Language. In his current role at Intel as external relations manager, Graphics, Rost has been deeply involved in the design and launch of the graphics architecture, opening channels to educate and inform researchers, ISVs, developers, academics, and students.

 

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