GPU Computing Comes of Age: Is 2011 Nvidia’s Year? 

I was at the Nvidia Quadro conference earlier this week and it is starting to look like 2011 is Nvidia’s year to shine.  

There is a massive movement towards GPU computing from scientific, business, entertainment, and even browsers are moving to GPU computing.

Nvidia as a graphics pure play is increasingly referenced as the company driving this initiative because they aren’t just working on building better graphics hardware but the software tools needed to drive the needed advancements that are now changing the industry.  

So, let’s explore this.

GPU Computing at the Core

The primary benefit to GPU computing is that it is massively parallel and for the right kind of code it is like moving from a 4 cylinder engine to a jet. The performance benefits are massive. The kind of code that lends itself to this trends toward multi-media and analysis. 

Strangely enough, it is actually more similar to how our brains work to interpret what we see and hear that makes it fascinating to see develop. Most existing code is written to perform tasks linearly however which better suites a CPU and much of this will never work well on a GPU due to the difference in architectures but where it works it works blazingly fast. 

The Software Edge

They key problem that had to be overcome was that even if GPUs were capable of doing this work someone had to develop the tools to make it possible.  NVIDIA’s Cuda and OpenCL efforts were funded to solve this problem and it is highly unusual for a hardware firm to develop a significant software practice.

Most rely on software partners to build out their ecosystem but, without the needed tools these partners would never emerge.

This was hardly done overnight and much of the last decade was spent painstakingly building tool after tool in order to drive the market where they needed it to go. But the result is finally paying off.

The Results

The end result is impressive we were shown advancements in imaging from a variety of CAD vendors that showcased how designs could be relatively easily used to create photorealistic images in a fraction of the time it used to take. 

These images could range from building, car, interior or things like the world of Pandora in Avatar which could only exist in the imagination before.  

Some of the medical imaging work that Siemens showcased was amazing. They are now apparently, using NVIDIA’s technology, able to model a beating heart to determine internal failures like blood leakage. They can also compile real time from ultra-scans the highly detailed image of a baby’s face to determine of there are any birth defects early on or just show the parents what their child looks like.   

MotionDSP showcased how they could remove much of the noise from military drone images and low light imaging cameras. Not only critical for military use but if you’ve ever used a Cisco Flip camera (which doesn’t have built in image stabilization).

Adobe is using this GPU computing to enhance their imaging products and are now apparently taking business away from Apple as a result.  

However, the biggest result was showcased the following day when Microsoft announced their support of GPU computing and Canvas with their new IE9 browser.

They are using this capability to massively speed up the performance of streaming video, gaming, and images in their browser. They will shortly be followed by Firefox, Chrome and even Safari as all race to take advantage of this new capability.  

Wrapping Up

This feels like Nvidia’s year, perhaps their decade, even their problems with Intel seem to be getting resolved as this week Intel submitted a draft of their consent decree which should help limit what Intel can do against them and benefit both Nvidia and AMD. In the end, I think, we are seeing a solid movement in Nvidia’s direction and this could just be their time to shine. 

Rob Enderle is one of the last Inquiry Analysts. Inquiry Analysts are paid to stay up to date on current events and identify trends and either explain the trends or make suggestions, tactical and strategic, on how to best take advantage of them. Currently he provides his services to most of the major technology and media companies. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.