Sponsored Feature: An Interview with Intel's Mike Burrows
July 30, 2009 Page 1 of 3
[In this Intel-sponsored feature, part of the Visual Computing website, the company's Mike Burrows, who is Senior Graphics Software Architect Manager for the Larrabee creator, talks about the upcoming chipset and its relevance for video games.]
Developing new computing hardware requires both an understanding of current industry trends as well as a longer-term view of where technology is going. Mike Burrows, Senior Graphics Software Architect Manager for Intel, has his sights on the far-reaching strategic view, determining how upcoming technologies like Larrabee can help take developers into the future.
Prior to his role at Intel, Mike spent a decade at Microsoft where he worked with game developers to fully exploit DirectX and participated in the earliest stages of the project that eventually became the Xbox. He also co-founded Microsoft's graphics advisory board, which includes top-tier studios like Blizzard, id, and Epic.
Today Mike continues working with those and other notable creators for Intel, where he serves as a liaison between third-party game developers and Intel's own visual computing group. The editors of Gamasutra spoke with him about how Larrabee will introduce new development possibilities, how the relationship of game design and graphics could change with upcoming visual computing trends, and about his decision to make a career change.
Tell us about your overall role at Intel.
Mike: Here, we're thinking strategically about how to move the industry forward. Really, that's what enticed me more than anything else to come to Intel -- looking across the field at the most exciting opportunities. The scope of Larrabee isn't just to help improve the core areas of functionality and make graphics cards more programmable; it's really about turning the system upside down and showing the exploitive revolution that's possible.
What specifically enticed you to leave Microsoft after a decade there? Did it have to do with Intel's longer-term projects in that space?
Mike: Exactly. I'm someone who thinks about things in the mid- to longer-term. How do we actually enable people, tactically, to get to those endpoints? By focusing on the strategic time frame and implementing things on the tactical road map to make that happen. That's a passion of mine and something I take great pride in.
Part of the reason for the move was the realization that the technologies behind Larrabee are an inflection point in the development of graphics cards. Around DirectX 8, Microsoft started exposing programmable shader languages -- as we call them now -- and allowing developers to write mini-programs. That's continued on a linear ramp.
But with Larrabee, that field has expanded. Yes, you can still program them like a traditional GPU, but Larrabee places you in a new realm where you have a huge amount of flexibility and freedom of development choice. That's a revolutionary change, instead of the usual stair-step innovation of simply adding more programmability.
It comes almost full circle in terms of flexibility from my own background -- I'm an old-school developer, a bedroom programmer from England who typed code into magazines and sent it off to publication.
Before I joined Microsoft, I headed up the R&D department of a company called Digital Image Design. We were great at creating software rasterization technologies, but we were restricted by the advent of 3D consumer graphics accelerators. We found we had to constrain our ideas to fit the nuances of hardware. I see Larrabee as the first chance to come full circle back to that amount of programmable flexibility and developer freedom.
That's another major reason that enticed me to join -- the promise of that freedom. And also, whenever the question is, "Do you want to go work with a bunch of really smart people on a truly revolutionary piece of technology?" then the answer is always going to be, "Well, yeah."
How do you see Larrabee fulfilling those promises of flexibility and freedom?
Mike: Just in terms of raw computing power and development flexibility, it blows the socks off anything else I'm aware of. I don't think I can say any more than that without tripping over NDA issues.
As someone who looks toward the long term, what are some of the trends you see coming down the pipeline in visual computing?
Mike: One of the things I noticed a few years ago was people blurring the lines between the graphics computing power, which is traditionally a vector stream compute unit, and the more traditional CPUs as we know them today.
Maybe people went a little bit too far in terms of trying to emulate this flexible computing power using their constrained vector computing unit, the GPU, but what was interesting to me was the way they were rethinking the algorithms.
It's questions like, "How do you map an algorithm to a more constrained set of computing resources, while also being significantly more flexible in terms of the width of the data?" That's SIMD: Single Instruction, Multiple Data -- maximizing the effective compute power per instruction. That's something that's been on the CPU side for a reasonable amount of time already.
We have a lot of vector computes on the CPU, but the CPU, particularly from the game side, is busy trying to deal with a lot of the complexities of game-specific problems.
Longer term, yes, we probably want to be able to load-balance those two sets of discrete compute units on the graphics card and the CPU, but having more flexible systems long-term is just as important. The buzzword in the industry today is heterogeneous computing. It's a matter of finding the most appropriate set of computing technology to run a given algorithm. That is very exciting to me at the moment.
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