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Exploring Nvidia's Pascal architecture

We dig into the GP100 GPU

Rys Sommefeldt works for Imagination Technologies and runs Beyond3D. He took us inside Nvidia's Fermi architecture a couple of years ago, and now he's back with a deep dive into what we know about Nvidia's Pascal GPU so far.

Telling you that Nvidia recently announced its first Pascal GPU, the GP100, is probably a bit redundant. It’s been the talk of the PC technology space since Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang announced the GP100-powered Tesla P100 in his inimitable, best-keynote-giver-in-Silicon-Valley style during the first keynote of the company’s recent GPU Technology Conference (GTC) in sunny San Jose.

It feels like Pascal’s been a long time coming. In reality, we haven’t deviated too far from Nvidia’s typical modus operandi of a roadmap announcement at a GTC, followed by products a couple of years down the line. The company hasn't been able to release the first Pascal chip for a while, thanks to the size it needed to be to make a generational leap in performance over prior Tesla products. Now that volume production of 16-nm transistors is possible, it's finally time for the first big Pascal chip to arrive, too. 

28-nm manufacturing has lasted a long time in discrete GPU land. AMD and Nvidia both skipped the 20-nm node at the various foundries because of its unsuitability for the needs of high-power semiconductor devices. Because of the long pause at 28 nanometers, people have been clamoring for the first products on newer production technologies to see what advancements they’d bring to the table. Volume manufacturing for TSMC's 28-nm high-performance process started back in late 2011, remember!

Now that Pascal is here, at least in announcement form, I jumped at the chance to reprise my 2009 analysis of Nvidia’s Fermi architecture. Fermi was announced at GTC in September of that year, but the company mostly talked about it from the standpoint of its GPU compute potential. I took a look at that chip then, and made some guesses about what its features might mean for consumer graphics products. I'll be performing a similar analysis this time around.

My task is a little different this time, though, because we were also told the basic graphics-focused makeup of GP100 at GTC. Thanks to those details, I don’t have to do too much speculation about the chip's graphics features and risk getting some of them wrong, like I did with Fermi. However, reading the Pascal tea leaves leaves me wondering whether GP100 will actually ever be used in GeForce products.

Let’s start with a brief recap of the last generation to see where today's chips ended up on 28nm before we jump into the new stuff. Be warned: if you’re not interested in the bigger building blocks of GPU design and lots of talk about how many of them are present, here be dragons. Still with me? Great, because some context and background always helps set the scene. Join us now on this weird journey through Blaise’s semiconductor namesake.