Microprocessor giant Intel on Monday provided the first details of its next microprocessor architecture, codenamed Larrabee, which will combine multiple processor cores with graphics processing functionality. The first Larrabee processors will appear in late 2009 or early 2010, Intel says.

"Larrabee is expected to kick start an industry-wide effort to create and optimize software for the dozens, hundreds, and thousands of cores expected to power future computers," Intel says. "Intel has a number of internal teams, projects and software-related efforts underway to speed the transition, but the tera-scale research program has been the single largest investment in Intel's technology research and has partnered with more than 400 universities, DARPA and companies such as Microsoft and HP to move the industry in this direction."

Intel describes the Larrabee processor family as being "many-core" chips that will utilize an array of many processors, probably 16 to 48 cores per chip at the start. (Today's PCs typically utilize microprocessors with 2 or maybe 4 processor cores.) But because the Larrabee chips will be based on the family x86 processor instruction set used by today's PCs and servers, the chip will be backwards compatible with today's software.

Intel says that initial Larrabee sales will target high-end markets such as gaming, 3D animation, and the like, and will support popular multimedia libraries like DirectX and OpenGL. It will compete with dedicated graphics chipset products from companies such as NVIDIA and ATI, the latter of which is owned by Intel's chief competitor, AMD.

Intel says, however, that integrating high-end graphics functionality into the microprocessor has many advantages, including a central store of memory cache that can minimize delays associated with physically disparate chips. And Larrabee will feature a unique ring-based data pathway that will further enhance performance, according to the company.

Intel will release a whitepaper describing Larrabee further at the SIGGRAPH 2008 conference on August 12 in Los Angeles. But the company says this processor generation represents the biggest shift in mainstream processors in over a decade.