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Mon 7 Dec 2009 04:00 AM

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Heart of the matter

The graphics processing unit or GPU is proving to be a challenge to the CPU in what has been called the ‘battle for the soul of the PC’. Recently, Nvidia’s CEO and co-founder Jen-Hsun Huang (Jensen) was in Dubai, and WINDOWS Gareth van Zyl caught up with him to discuss the future of computing, Nvidia’s focus in the region and why visual computing is becoming ever more important.

Heart of the matter
Heart of the matter
The likes of Nvidia’s Tegra drives the Zune HD media players.
Heart of the matter
The ION platform, regarded as ‘the world’s smallest fully capable visual computer’.

The graphics processing unit or GPU is proving to be a challenge to the CPU in what has been called the ‘battle for the soul of the PC’. Recently, Nvidia’s CEO and co-founder Jen-Hsun Huang (Jensen) was in Dubai, and WINDOWS Gareth van Zyl caught up with him to discuss the future of computing, Nvidia’s focus in the region and why visual computing is becoming ever more important.

For Nvidia it all started out with the GeForce graphics cards for gamers. It’s branched out into the likes of Tegra (which is incorporated into the Zune HD media players), Tesla (which is geared towards technical industries such as Oil and Gas), and CUDA, the architecture and computing engine that can now be found on many GPUs and which has helped to drive graphics development to new heights.

Of late, Nvidia’s role in elevating the prominence of the GPU has never been more apparent than with the release of its ION platform, which works alongside low power central processing units, such as Intel’s Atom processors, to allow for small form factor PCs to have better performance.

So, when Nvdia’s co-founder and CEO, Jen-Hsun Huang (Jensen) recently visited the Middle East and was hosted at the American University of Dubai (AUD), it was a perfect opportunity to gauge his thoughts on the future of computing, on what Nvidia’s interests in the Middle East are and why the GPU and visual computing are playing an increasingly important role in our digital lives.

On the future of computing, Huang starts off by saying,“In 1993, Nvidia’s chip was one million transistors and a 46 microprocessor was four million transistors, so five million transistors would effectively represent the vast majority of a high-end CPU or high-end system. Well, today you have 3 billion transistors on Nvidia’s new Firma chip."

The Firma chip is, of course, going to be incorporated into what will be Nvidia’s ‘general purpose’ GPUs. That is, turning GPUs into general purpose parallel computing processors that work alongside and assist CPUs to perform better.“It’s about number crunching,” says Huang, “it’s about the kind of problem that you have and whether it’s possible to do it parallel or you have to do it in serial. If you can do something in parallel you would. So, we call this new world not central processing but co-processing. Instead of just using a sequential processor, there’s going to be a sequential processor and a parallel co-processor and instead of just running everything on the CPU we’re now going to have APIs like DirectCompute, Open CL and CUDA that allows people to write programs that takes advantage of the CPU and the GPU.”

Discussing the future of computing at AUD was just one of the reasons why Huang was in Dubai, but he was also in the Middle East because of the numerous other interests Nvidia has in the region.

“Geforce is just really the baseline, and I was here to honour and thank our partners who have brought our products to the market place. Our market share here in Dubai and in the Middle East is something like 85%. So, our market share is really very high and it’s all because of great partners. The second thing I wanted to do is recognise that as the Middle East starts to invest in the next generation of the Middle East, they want to make sure that they’re educated in far broader fields than natural resources, than banking, than trade.

“And then the third thing is the local industry has a lot of work in oil and gas. You know oil and gas companies around here have used Nvidia’s Quadro technology (our visualisation technology) for visualising very very large data sets in the oil reserves, and that’s one area of research, but we believe that you can also use the visualisation technology for military use, for military training, you can use it for educational purposes, simulation purposes, digital broadcasts, designing products. And so we want to make sure that we help the local market understand and expand their view of what computer technology can do for them,” he concludes.

So, with the focus seemingly not just on gamers anymore, how does Jensen respond to critics such as AMDs senior manager of development relations, who was recently quoted as saying that “Nvidia is somewhat abandoning the gaming market”?

“We launched the Firmi architecture the first time for super computing, and so there was no sense in focusing on graphics. We then launch Firmi a second time for graphics, for the gamers, they don’t care about supercomputing, and so, the second time we launch it you’re going to discover some really exciting capabilities for graphics,” Huang responds.“Every five years, we will change the game, this is now, you know, technology that we bring to the next generation of GeForce is so far beyond a game console that you’ll simply be captivated. We’re going to create imagery and effects that you simply can’t even dream of on a game console,” he says.

Jensen is renowned for being a fiery persona but he reiterates that Nvidia has a friendly competition with the likes of AMD, and Nvidia supports both AMD and Intel chipsets. However, Nvidia’s relationship with Intel can only be described as being a lot more acrimonious, especially when considering the latest debacle over Intel being alleged to be given rebates to distributors to support only Intel chipsets.

“Intel, on the other hand, is just mean. I think they’re terrible for the industry. I think they’re absolutely terrible for the industry, they kill everybody, they render AMD to the point where it’s theoretically impossible for AMD to make money.

“They [Intel] have such a built up position in the market place, a billion dollars to them doesn’t matter. A billion dollars to AMD is more profit than they’ve seen in the last ten years, so how is it possible for AMD to survive. It’s almost not, and so that’s unfortunate and it’s frustrating, because I like AMD processors, and we support both AMD processors and Intel processors. I do think that’s very disruptive to the market place, and I hope it changes."

And what of the future for Nvidia; what can one expect for 2010?

“We have a few generations already of IONS and IONS and IONS coming, and our goal is very very simple, we’re always going to be here to energise that atom, and every single generation is going to be a bit of a surprise. That’s what we’re about to announce early next year [2010], and CES is going to be a really noisy time. There’s some new products coming, but at CES we’re going to announce a whole new bunch of ideas. And people are just going to be going, ‘Oh that’s so clever’. So, watch this space,” he says with a big grin on his face.

Parallel versus Serial computing

Parallel computing is a form of computation in which many calculations are carried out simultaneously,operating on the principle that large problems can often be divided into smaller ones, which are then solved concurrently ("in parallel"). Serial computing involves software running on a single CPU where a problem is broken into a series of instructions, which are executed one after another with only one instruction allowed to be executed at any moment in time.

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