HSA Foundation: for Show or for Real?

I recently spent a few days at AMD’s Fusion Developer Summit in Seattle, Washington.  Among many of the announcements was one to introduce the HSA Foundation, an organization  currently including AMD, ARM,  Imagination, MediaTek, and Texas Instruments.  The HSA Foundation was announced to “make it easy to program for parallel computing.”  That sounds a bit like an oxymoron as parallel programming has been the realm of “ninja programmers” according to Adobe’s Chief Software Architect, Tom Malloy at AMD’s event.  Given today’s parallel programming challenge, lots of work needs to be done to make this happen, and in the case of the companies above, it comes in the form of a foundation.  I spent over 20 years planning, developing, and marketing products and when you first hear the word “foundation” or “consortium” it conjures up visions of very long and bureaucratic meetings where little gets done and there is a lot of infighting.  The fact is, some foundations are like that but some are extremely effective   like the Linux Foundation. So which path will the HSA Foundation go down?  Let’s drill in.

The Parallel/GPU Challenge

The first thing I must point out is that if CPUs and GPUs keep increasing compute performance at their current pace, the GPU will continue to maintain a raw compute performance advantage over the CPU, so it is very important that the theoretical performance is turned into a real advantage.  The first thing we must do is distinguish is between serial and parallel processing.  Don’t take these as absolutes, as both CPUs and GPUs can both run serially and in parallel.  Generally speaking, CPUs do a better job on serial, out of order code, and GPUs do a better job on parallel, in-order code.   I know there are 100’s of dependencies but work with me here.  This is why GPUs do so much better on games and CPUs do so well on things like pattern matching. The reality is, few tasks just use the CPU and few just use the GPU; both are required to work together and at the same level to get the parallel processing gains.  By working at the same level I mean getting the same access to memory, unlike today where the CPU really dictates who gets what and when.  A related problem today is that coding for the GPU is very difficult, given the state of the languages and tools.  The other challenge is the numbers of programmers who can write GPU versus CPU code.  According to IDC, over 10M CPU coders exist compared to 100K GPU coders.  Adobe calls GPU coders  “ninja” developers because it is just so difficult, even with tools like OpenCL and CUDA given they are such low level languages.  That’s OK for markets like HPC (high performance computing) and workstations, but not for making tablet, phone and PC applications that could use development environments such as the Android SDK or even Apple’s XCode.  Net-net there are many challenges for a typical programmer to code an GPU-accelerated app for a phone, tablet, or a PC.

End User Problem/Opportunity

Without the need to solve an end user or business problem, any foundation is dead in the water.  Today NVIDIA  is using CUDA (C, C++, C#,), OpenCL, and OpenACC and AMD supports OpenCL to solve the most complex industrial workloads in existence.  As an example, NVIDIA simulated at their GTC developer conference what the galaxy would look like 3.8B years in the future.  Intel is using MIC, or Many Integrated Cores to tackle these huge tasks.  These technologies are for high-performance computing, not for phones, tablets or PCs. The HSA Foundation is focused on solving the next generation problems and uncovering opportunities in areas like the natural user interface with a multi-modal voice, touch and gesture inputs, bio-metric recognition for multi-modal security, augmented reality and managing all of the visual content at work and at home.  ARM also talked on-stage and in the Q&A about the power-savings they believed they could attain from a shared memory, parallel compute architecture, which surprised me.  Considering ARM powers almost 100% of today’s smartphones and tablets around the world, I want to highlight what they said.  Programming for these levels of apps at low power and enabling 100’s of thousands of programmers ultimately requires very simple tools which don’t exist today to create these apps.

The HSA Foundation Solution

The HSA Foundation goal, as stated above, was to “make it easy to program for parallel computing.” What does this mean?  The HSA Foundation will agree on hardware and software standards.  That’s unique in that most initiatives are just focused on the hardware or the software.  The goal of the foundation is to literally bend the hardware to fit the software.  On the hardware side this first means agreement on the hardware architectural definition of the shared memory architecture between CPU and GPU.  This is required for the CPU and GPU to be at the same level and not be restricted by buses today like PCI Express.  The second version of that memory specification can be found here.  The software architecture spec and the programmer reference manual are still in the working group.  Ultimately, simple development environments like the Google Android SDK, Apple’s XCode and Microsoft’s Visual Studio would need to holistically support this to get the support of the more mainstream, non-ninja programmer.  This will be a multi-year effort and will need to be measured on a quarterly basis to really see the progress the foundation is making.

Foundations are Tricky

The HSA Foundation will encounter issues every other foundation encounters at one time in its life.  First is the challenge of founding members changing their minds or getting goal-misaligned.  This happens a lot where someone who joins stops buying into the premise of the group or staunchly believes it isn’t valuable anymore.  Typically that member stops contributing but could even become a drag on the initiative and needs to be voted off.  The good news is that today, AMD, ARM, TI, MediaTek and Imagination have a need as they all need to accelerate parallel processing.  The founding members need to make this work for their future businesses to be as successful as they would like. Second challenge is the foundation is missing key players in GPUs.  NVIDIA is the discrete GPU PC and GPU-compute market share leader, Intel is the PC integrated GPU market share leader, and Qualcomm is the smartphone GPU market share leader.  How far can the HSA Foundation get without them?  This will ultimately be up to guys like Microsoft, Google and Apple with their development environments.  One wild-card here is SOC companies with standard ARM licenses.  To get agreement on a shared memory architecture, the CPU portion of ARM SOC would need to be HSA-compliant too, which means that every standard ARM license derived product would be HSA-compliant.  If you had an ARM architecture license like Qualcomm has then it wouldn’t need to be HSA-compliant.  The third challenge is speed.  Committees are guaranteed to be slower than a partnership between two companies and obviously slower than one company.  I will be looking for quarterly updates on specifications, standards and tools.

For Show or for Real?

The HSA Foundation is definitely for real and formed to make a real difference.  The hardware is planned to be literally bent to fit the software, and that’s unique.  The founding members have a business and technical need, solving the problem means solving huge end user and business problems so there is demand, and the problem will be difficult to solve without many companies agreeing on an approach.  I believe over time, the foundation will need to get partial or full support from Intel, NVIDIA, and/or Qualcomm to make this initiative as successful as it will need to be to accelerate the benefits of parallel processing on the GPU.



Why Apple Should Build a TV

While I don’t believe it, to many, it appears that Apple has already won the smartphone and tablet wars, so the next logical conclusion is “what’s next”. Many articles about the Apple in the TV business rumors (not to be confused with the “hobbyistApple TV) focus on what a lousy business TVs are or questioning if Apple could add enough incremental value given cable and content companies have the power position. These are good and pragmatic reasons, but then again when has Apple been pragmatic? I see nothing pragmatic about expensive MP3 players at 2X the price of others, paid music downloads or app stores 10 years ago. I personally would like to see Apple enter the TV market.


TVs and STBs Have Big Issues

Let’s face it, TVs aren’t very easy to use, especially when they are connected to a set top box (STB). Most of us tech-heads forget just how literate we all are with technology. Just ask a less tech-literate person to change inputs on the TV to go from the set top box to the DVD player. Many times they have “Channel 3” written down somewhere so they remember. Ever lost that remote? Sure you have and it really pissed you off. How about a set top box from a cable company? Mine takes almost a second to change the channel. And why do I keep running out of storage when I have TBs of secured storage in other parts of my house? I know what you are thinking… too complex, too many companies involved with too many conflicting agendas. Well, I’ve heard that same short-term thinking before with digital music.


Big Problems Need a Fearless Company like Apple

Apple has a solid track record in fixing those issues that have plagued users for years. Apple has significantly moved the industry in:

  • Simple digital content downloads
  • Application purchasing and updating
  • UI simplicity
  • Computer boot time, wake from sleep time
  • Reliability and dependability

So Apple fixes huge issues and TVs and STBs have big issues. It sounds like the perfect match.

A Bold Assumption on Content and the Distributors

My assumption is that Apple will find a business model the content providers will find advantageous or tempting enough to cross the cable and satellite companies. If not, then you would expect them to declare war and do everything in their power to circumvent this by investing in the “pipe” or content companies themselves. This market is too huge and too big an opportunity for the most valuable company on the planet to pass up. I know, this sounds impossible, but when Napster arrived on the scene, how plausible did iTunes sound? How plausible did downloadable movies sound with bit-torrent around?

So why should Apple make a TV? Because there is so much they could improve and people will pay a hefty premium to have a superior experience in a few different areas.

Finding Content via Advanced HCI

Controlling a device with 1,000s of “channels” makes absolutely no sense with a physical remote like we have today with up and down buttons and even numbers. This would be like instead of having Google web search as we have today, we were stuck with Yahoo directories and no search. Directories made sense until the options exploded, like we have today with content.

Apple is one of a few companies who could master controlling the TV’s content via voice primarily, then secondarily air gestures for finer grain controls. First, the TV needs to be smart enough to determine who in the room has “control” and who doesn’t. It’s the future problem of today’s “who has the remote” issue. Then it needs to separate between background noises and real people if you are to have the best voice control. After you have found what you want to watch, you can fine-tune with the flick of a finger. This takes technologies even more advanced than the Kinect to pull this off, including the right sensors and parallel compute power delivered by OpenCLTM frameworks.

Apple Device Integration

If Apple developed a TV, they could conceivably guarantee that the iPhone, iPad, Time Capsule and Macs could seamlessly share content between each other. We have seen from the issues with Android and webOS on getting Netflix and Hulu+ that content providers are more apt to license when there are more closed systems.

As I am watching my NFL Football game, I want perfect, real-time sync of stats on my iPad, and want to be able to carry the game from the media room with me on my iPhone into the kitchen. I’d like overflow content storage to go to my Mac, PC, or Time Capsule. Finally, I would also expect to see sharing of basic sensors like cameras, microphones, gyroscopes, proximity sensors, and accelerometers to extend and facilitate security, monitoring, and gaming applications.

Apple Basics

I would want some of the basic positive characteristics I get in my iPhone and iPad in my iTV. I would expect it to be very responsive, reliable, and with a sense of awesome style. My set top box or my TV is neither of these. I would know that every differentiating feature would work well or it wouldn’t be included. I would also expect some key 10’ UI apps as well.


I believe Apple can and will be able to arrive at a business model with content providers and cable/satellite companies. Either that or it will get very ugly for everyone. The most valuable company in the world with a huge pile of cash, no debt and a historic track record of pioneering breakthrough content deals can do this, or if forced to will go around it. Apple has been a company that fixes those nagging problems, and the TV and STB have a lot of them. Our basic method of finding content is broken. STBs crash and are slow and don’t work with other devices in the home. I’d like to see Apple fix these issues. How about you?