Intel has announced that it is to begin commercial shipments of its Knights Corner Many Integrated Core (MIC) architecture hardware under the brand name Xeon Phi.

Born out of the Larrabee graphics project, Knights Corner and Knights Ferry are codenames for add-in PCI Express accelerator boards which add fifty high-performance massively-parallel processing cores plus up to 8GB of GDDR5 memory to a computer system. If that sounds familiar, it's because what Intel has basically created is a graphics card minus the graphics - the equivalent to Nvidia's GPGPU-targeted Tesla product line.

Although Intel has been providing Knights Ferry and Knights Corner hardware, under its Many Integrated Cores (MIC) project, to supercomputing companies and research establishments, it has yet to launch a commercial version. Its announcement at the International Supercomputing Conference yesterday changes that - and upgrades the specification of the hardware into the bargain.

While previous Knights Corner boards, including one shown off by the company back at the International Supercomputing Conference 2011, packed fifty processing cores and 4GB of GDDR5 memory, the Xeon Phi will include more than 50 cores - although Intel isn't saying just how many more - and 8GB or more of GDDR5 RAM.

Running double-precision floating point mathematics, the Xeon Phi is claimed to be capable of one teraflop - a trillion operations per second. By contrast, Nvidia's M2090 Tesla board manages just 665 gigaflops in double-precision mode.

The re-purposed Larrabee hardware is all part of Intel's 'exascale' vision - increasing the efficiency and performance of computing hardware beyond today's gigaflop and teraflop levels to petaflop and exaflop levels - one quintillion operations per second.

Intel's continued investment in the long-deceased Larrabee project as it exists in the MIC architecture opens an interesting possibility for the consumer market, too: although current MIC hardware is targeted firmly at supercomputing and high-performance computing (HPC) markets and comes with a price-tag to match, it gives Intel the potential to one day take a cut-down MIC board and release it as a discrete graphics card by adding a few additional components.

Speaking at the International Supercomputing Conference last year Intel's director of technical compute marketing John Hengeveld refused to deny any such plans, stating simply that 'Larrabee and MIC are aimed at different markets - we tried to take the best out of what we learned [from Larrabee] and bring it to MIC.' Hengeveld would go on to clarify that 'there are challenges moving from one to the other - and Intel may or may not want to take those challenges,' leaving the door open for a rebirth of Larrabee in the future.
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