This month Robert Jamieson heads back to home turf to look at the current state of the workstation graphics market and what the future holds.

ATi√Ěs 1GB FireGL V7350.

It’s been an interesting last month in workstation graphics. With my company (ATI) introducing a new top end workstation card and 3Dlabs stating its withdrawal from the workstation graphics market place. Although not directly related I’m going to give my perspective on the factors that make these things happen in our industry.

As with any industry there are lots of companies vying for control of the market. As technology develops production costs increase and you end up with a small group of larger players.

If not by direct mergers the people in the graphics industry have all worked for different players. 3Dlabs had the Intergraph Wildcat team and is now owned by Creative Technology famous for its soundcards and now its MP3 players. Creative wanted to get into general performance graphics to compete with ATI and Nvidia and purchased the high end player 3Dlabs so that it could develop chips that could also be used in “consumer” graphics. The problem was 3Dlabs made high end performance cards for ultimate OpenGL performance using limited production runs GPUs (Graphic Processing Units) on physically large cards. But designing and making a GPU for mass production is a very different game and even in the interim Creative purchased GPUs from ATI and Nvidia to sell to consumer graphics customers. I guess this just didn’t help the bottom line for 3Dlabs.

The cost of drivers

There are a few areas that make a big difference to why there is a higher cost for workstation graphics cards. The driver has to be tested by the ISV (Independent Software Vendors, such as Autodesk, Dassault etc) to prove it works to their standards and ensure any bugs are fixed. These drivers optimise the performance so that the card is faster in the application and because of the testing they are more reliable. The ongoing support costs for workstation cards are quite high in terms of manpower as workstation graphics card vendors also have to develop drivers for future applications not yet written. Inventor 12 and Solidworks 2008 are currently only a twinkle in their developers’ eyes but when they come out they will have to be supported on graphics cards that were shipped long ago.

Graphic interfaces and content is constantly changing in CAD so this is not an easy task. With ATI and Nvidia having a larger market share we have contact with more customers and therefore fix more bugs. This translates to reliable performing drivers. This generally means good customer experience (there will always be an exception) which is important for repeat business. This is something that reduces as your user base shrinks.

The extra money a larger user base brings in means you can spend more on driver development. Take our new cards, for example. The performance is good now but six months down the line it will be better as we invest time and money to improve this with optimisations for each application.

As the gap widened between high price and limited performance gain of 3Dlabs over ATI and Nvidia the sales slumped making it hard for 3Dlabs to develop new GPUs. This was made harder as DirectX become more popular in use in workstation applications (and continues to today). The 3Dlabs cards have a lot less performance in this area and so excluded them from vast segments of the market. The next Microsoft operating system, Windows Vista, is heavily focused on DirectX and needs a high performance DirectX card to get the enhanced functionality of the interface - never mind the requirements of CAD applications.

The new generation

The workstation market grew quite a bit last year, not only in this country, but worldwide as more people recognise the advantages of good performance and the benefits of supported graphics. Now, the two main players in volume are ATI and Nvidia and because there are two companies going head to head the users are safe. Constant competition guarantees good value and repeated innovation. Once one comes out with a new better solution, currently ATI’s FireGL V7350 with 1GB of frame buffer, you can guarantee the competition will try and come out with something to compete with it sometime soon.

Because the two main players ATI and Nvidia are going head to head, users are safe. Constant competition guarantees good value and repeated innovation.

So why do we need all this RAM on a graphics card? I am not saying a card like the V7350 will give improvements to all CAD and visualisation applications today but for certain high-end requirements, such as in medical imaging, this is a requirement. Also DCC (Digital Content Creation) applications like 3ds Max can cache large datasets into this frame buffer (or by default when using DirectX mode) so that it improves the frame rate (rotational performance). This is also linked to the time it takes to zoom in and out. On a large model do you really want to waste time waiting for this? With the other CAD vendors implementing this functionality to exactly get these benefits. I imagine cards with more RAM will become increasing popular once the memory limits have gone when 64-bit computing becomes the norm. For people on a tighter budget the V7300 has “only” 512Mb which is easier on the pocket but gives the same base performance.

The future

I have talked recently about more computing functions being placed on GPUs as the current GPUs are an array of little processors. Once applications become available which support these functions more directly and Operating Systems like Vista have this functionality built in, GPU choice will become as important as CPU choice.

Microsoft Windows has produced a document on the minimum requirements for “Premium” Windows Vista to support the Aero interface. The main crux of this is that you need a dedicated graphics card with at least 128MB of RAM (not shared memory) to run at a resolution of 1,600 x 1,200 with 32-bit per pixel. DirectX 9 support with Shader Model 2 and a texture bandwith of 2GB/second. All FireGL cards from the last two years, with the exception of the FireGL T2s (half height) support this requirement.

In summary, this is likely to be a good year for graphic card vendors with the increasing reliance on 3D applications, not only in CAD, but for file viewers. Windows Vista and the competing Operating Systems with 3D interfaces will also play a major role.

Robert Jamieson works for workstation graphics specialist, ATI.

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