AMD counters CUDA with renewed ATI Stream initiative

— 6:00 AM on November 13, 2008

Expect consumer software to start using Radeon GPUs for general-purpose computing in the very near future. AMD has announced a new round of stream processing initiatives aimed at bringing stream computing "from the desktop to the datacenter."

To start off, AMD has taken a page out of Nvidia's marketing playbook and tied a catchy name to its general-purpose GPU computing efforts: ATI Stream. Unlike Nvidia's CUDA, which is really a set of development tools, the ATI Stream label covers everything from GPU-based parallel computing to apps that use the graphics rendering pipeline in non-traditional ways. That means that GPU-accelerated PDF rendering and GPGPU scientific computations both fall under the ATI Stream umbrella.

On the more concrete side of the endeavor, AMD plans to release a new Catalyst graphics driver on December 10 with the Compute Abstraction Layer (CAL) runtime built in. If you read our interview with AMD's Patti Harrell in June, you'll know CAL essentially bridges the gap between high-level programming interfaces (like Brook+) and Radeon GPUs. Right now, AMD supplies the CAL runtime DLL to developers, and those developers have to distribute it with their software—an iffy approach from a compatibility standpoint, since new driver releases could break compatibility with old CAL DLLs. From the Catalyst 8.12 release onward, AMD will include the CAL library with the graphics drivers.

Instead of waiting for third parties to take advantage of these updates and create consumer GPGPU apps for Radeon users, AMD will offer one together with the new Catalyst release. As far as we can tell, the new Avivo Video Converter will more or less mirror the functionality of the Elemental Badaboom video transcoder we wrote about recently, but with two key differences: it'll run on AMD GPUs, and it won't cost $30. While AMD hasn't given us a full list of supported input and output formats yet, the firm's presentation mentioned GPGPU-accelerated transcoding of MPEG-2 and 1080p H.264 video for use on handheld players, DVDs, and other devices. In the company's own benchmarks, the encoder cut HD video transcoding times from three hours to just 12 minutes on a system with a 2.6GHz Phenom X4 and a Radeon HD 4850. There's a catch, however—you'll need a Radeon HD 4600- or 4800-series GPU to use the tool.

The upcoming Avivo Video Converter. Source: AMD.

A third-party alternative will follow in the first quarter of next year. CyberLink plans to release an update for PowerDirector 7 that will go "beyond ATI Avivo Converter capabilities with multiple HD videos transcoding" and offer "enhanced video editing, effects creation, playback and transfer," in AMD's words.

Simultaneously with the Catalyst 8.12 driver release, AMD expects to introduce version 1.3 of its Stream SDK to developers. The new-and-improved development toolkit will bring "significant performance enhancements" to the Brook+ high-level programming language, and it will support Radeon HD 4350, 4550, and 4600 graphics cards plus a new high-performance computing card—the AMD FireStream 9270.

Due out later this quarter at $1,499, the FireStream 9270 will have 800 SPs, a 750MHz core speed, 2GB of 850MHz GDDR5 RAM, and typical power consumption of 160W. AMD says this card will be able to hit 1.2 teraFLOPS of single-precision computing power and 240 gigaFLOPS of double-precision power. Judging by the GPU specs, the FireStream 9270 may well be a souped-up flavor of the Radeon HD 4870.

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