Jim Keller Becomes CTO at Tenstorrent: "The Most Promising Architecture Out There"by Dr. Ian Cutress on January 5, 2021 9:50 PM EST
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It is high praise when someone like Jim Keller says that your company ‘has made impressive progress, and has the most promising architecture out there’. That praise means twice as much if Keller actually joins the company. Today Tenstorrent is announcing that Jim Keller, compute architect extraordinaire, has joined the company as its Chief Technology Officer, President, and joins the company board.
To our regular audience, Jim Keller is a known expert in all things computer architecture. His history starts at DEC, designing Alpha processors, before moving to a first stint at AMD for two years working to launch K7 and K8. Keller spent four years as Chief Architect at SiByte/Broadcom designing MIPS for network interfaces, four years at P.A. Semi, four years at Apple (A4+A5), then back to AMD for three years two years as Corporate VP and Chief Cores Architect in charge of the new generation of CPU architectures, K12 and Zen. This was then followed with two years at Tesla as VP of Autopilot Hardware Engineering creating the Full Self-Driving chip, then two years as Intel’s Senior VP of the Silicon Engineering Group, before leaving in June 2020. Since his departure from Intel, a number of key industry analysts (and ourselves) have been guessing where Jim would land. He briefly appeared in the audience of Elon Musk’s Neuralink presentation in August 2020, alongside Lex Fridman.
|Jim Keller: Work Experience|
|1998||1999||AMD||Lead Architect||K7, K8|
|1999||2000||SiByte||Chief Architect||MIPS Networking|
|2000||2004||Broadcom||Chief Architect||MIPS Networking|
|2004||2008||P.A. Semi||VP Engineering||Low Power Mobile|
|2008||2012||Apple||VP Engineering||A4 / A5 Mobile|
|8/2012||9/2015||AMD||Corp VP and
Chief Cores Architect
|Skybridge / K12
|2021||Tenstorrent||President and CTO||TBD|
Today Tenstorrent reached out to inform us that Jim Keller has taken the position of President and Chief Technology Officer of the company, as well as being a member of its Board of Directors. Jim's role, based on his previous expertise, would appear to be in the design of future products for the company as well as building on the team at Tenstorrent to succeed in that goal.
CEO Ljubisa Bajic confirmed Jim’s appointment as President and CTO of the company, stating that:
Tenstorrent was founded on the belief that the ongoing shift towards ML-centric software necessitates a corresponding transformation in computational capabilities. There is nobody more capable of executing this vision than Jim Keller, a leader who is equally great at designing computers, cultures, and organizations. I am thrilled to be working with Jim and beyond excited about the possibilities our partnership unlocks.
Tenstorrent is a pure-play fab-less AI chip design and software company, which means that they create and design silicon for machine learning, then use a foundry to make the hardware, then work with partners to create solutions (as in, chips + system + software + optimizations for that customer). For those that know this space, this makes the company sound like any of the other 50 companies out in the market that seem to be doing the same thing. The typical split with pure-play fabless AI chip design companies is whether they are focused on training or inference: Tenstorrent does both, and is already in the process of finalizing its third generation processor.
Founded in 2016, Tenstorrent has around 70 employees between Toronto and Austin. The critical members of the company all have backgrounds in silicon design: the CEO led power and performance architecture at AMD as well as system architecture for Tegra at NVIDIA, the head of system software spent 16 years across AMD and Altera, and there’s expertise from neural network accelerator design from Intel, GPU systems engineering at AMD, Arm CPU verification leads, IO virtualization expertise at AMD, Intel’s former neural network compiler team lead, as well as AMD’s former security and network development lead. It sounds like Jim will fit right in, as well as have a few former colleagues working alongside him.
Tenstorrent’s current generation product is Grayskull, a ~620mm2 processor built on GF’s 12nm that was initially designed as an inference accelerator and host. It contains 120 custom cores in a 2D bidirectional mesh, and offers 368 TeraOPs of 8-bit compute for only 65 W. Each of the 120 custom cores has a packet management engine for data control, a packet compute engine that contains Tenstorrent’s custom TENSIX cores, and five RISC cores for non-standard operations, such as conditionals. The chip focuses on sparse tensor operations by optimizing matrix operations into compressed packets, enabling pipeline parallelization of the compute steps both through the graph compiler and the packet manager. This also enables dynamic graph execution, and compared to some other AI chip models, allows both compute and data transfer asynchronously, rather than specific compute/transfer time domains.
Grayskull is currently shipping to Tenstorrent’s customers, all of which are still undisclosed.
The next generation chip, known as Wormhole, is more focused on training than acceleration, and also bundles in a 16x100G Ethernet port switch. The move from training to acceleration necessitates a faster memory interface, and so there are six channels of GDDR6, rather than 8 channels of LPDDR4. This might seem low compared to other AI chips discussing HBM integration, however Tenstorrent’s plan here seems to be more aligned for more mid-range cost structure, but also offering machine learning compute at a better rate of efficiency than those chips pushing the bleeding edge of frequency and process node (part of this will be in yields as well).
So where exactly does Keller fit in if the current generation is already selling, and the next generation is almost ready to go? In speaking to the CEO, I confirmed that Keller ‘will be building new and interesting stuff with us’. This seems to suggest that the vision with Keller’s involvement is going to be on 2022/2023 hardware in mind, following Tenstorrent’s overriding Software 2.0 strategy that the hardware, compiler, and run-time offer a full-stack approach to sparse (and dense) AI matrix calculations. In Jim’s own words:
Software 2.0 is the largest opportunity for computing innovation in a long time. Victory requires a comprehensive re-thinking of compute and low level software. Tenstorrent has made impressive progress, and with the most promising architecture out there, we are poised to become a next gen computing giant.
Jim Keller officially started last Wednesday, and the official wire announcement is set for 1/6, but we've been allowed to share in advance. Our request for an interview with Jim has been noted and filed, potentially for a few months down the line as the company has some more details on its platform and roadmap (I’ve also asked for an up-to-date headshot of Jim!). For those interested, I interviewed Jim back in July 2018, just after he started at Intel – you can read that interview here.
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SydneyBlue120d - Wednesday, January 6, 2021 - linkLOOOL, I was thinking the same 😂
Arbie - Wednesday, January 6, 2021 - linkBetter than Homelander, at least.
Droekath - Tuesday, January 5, 2021 - linkI would say that I'm somewhat disappointed. I had hoped that after Intel, we would see Jim in another consumer-facing company, doing something that I could personally get my hands on.
But all the best to him, I'm sure he'll do amazingly well wherever he is.
Sychonut - Wednesday, January 6, 2021 - linkBig companies are really no fun to work at. The pay is generally better but the bureaucracy and politics is soul crushing. I am almost certain this was a big factor in his decision to move away from a big company to a small one.
Kjella - Wednesday, January 6, 2021 - linkRank and file employees might feel that way but if you're someone like Jim Keller I think your experience is quite different. For one a paycheck with F U money and he could probably get half a dozen job offers in a week, if head hunters didn't chase him down first. An R&D group with the bugdet to actually do groundbreaking cool stuff. Life's usually pretty good at the top.
whatthe123 - Wednesday, January 6, 2021 - linkI don't know how credible the rumors are but "rumor" was that Keller could not convince Intel's management that they were too far behind in fabrication and needed to outsource some chips if they wanted to stay on track, so he left because his work wouldn't have made a difference without the process to back it. Soon after he left intel they finally admitted they needed to outsource their GPUs since 7nm is behind schedule as usual, so it seems possible that even at this level he couldn't break through the bureaucracy.
Oberoth - Wednesday, January 6, 2021 - linkIntel had the money and resources to create an entire department just for Jim that's untouched by the normal dysfunctional Intel bureaucracy, they should have given Jim anything he wanted as he would have given back 10x that.
I just really hope he managed to put together some decent chips in his short time at Intel because they desperately needed his genuine. My understanding is he helped with Alder Lake but 'the Jim chip' is the one after this, it was originally called Ocean Cove but I believe that have been changed now.
FunBunny2 - Wednesday, January 6, 2021 - link"Intel had the money and resources to create an entire department just for Jim that's untouched by the normal dysfunctional Intel bureaucracy, they should have given Jim anything he wanted as he would have given back 10x that."
as the then CEO of Intel said back in the late 70s, early 80s, I'd rather have my chip in every Ford than in every PC. IOW, Intel has been chasing volume hardware. doesn't sound like this new gig is anything like that.
webdoctors - Friday, January 8, 2021 - linkI used to think like this, but now these chips/projects need huge teams to do both chip design and the SW support for programming them. A team of 100 engineers would barely be enough to get a basic chip taped out and running off the shelf HW. Including the SW layer on top and you'd need several hundred employees.
Gone are the days of doing something in your garage.
FunBunny2 - Saturday, January 9, 2021 - link"huge teams to do both chip design"
when was the last time a chip designer drew a transistor, resistor, capacitor, inductor? decades? there are myriad CAD tools that build a chip like a Lincoln Log cabin, or Lego X-Man if you prefer. these tools have widgets for the discrete elements of current architectural understanding. there a some number of engineers who build these tools, just as there are coders who write compilers for software languages. I'd wager that the labor component of chip (virtual) tape out today is a fraction of what it was back when 'tape out' was literal. I'd wager even more if that metric is scaled by complexity (# of transistors, etc. or discrete elements) of the chip. we know for a fact that node size drop has led to most of what used to be peripheral functions on other chips are now on the SoC. I wonder why they call it that?