August 30, 2004
PCI Express
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Jack Horgan - Contributing Editor

by Jack Horgan - Contributing Editor
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In my editorial previewing DAC I identified the SIGGRAPH International Conference on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques as a comparable event in so far as it is a high tech show targeted at professionals (digital content creators and graphics professionals) and has a parallel conference with high quality tutorials, panels and technical papers. This year the show was held in Los Angeles from August 8th to 12th drawing 27,825 professionals including yours truly. SIGGRAPH (Special Interest Group for Graphics) is part of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). Decades ago the SIGGRAPH show was dominated by CAD companies and by vendors of plotters, monitors and workstations.
A lot has changed over the years. This year's show highlights the graphics-related products, tools, and technologies (current and future) used to create feature films, television programs, commercials, music and corporate videos, game production, web design and interactive web streaming. Hardware exhibitors included firms with equipment for motion capture, scanning, video effects, digital video, graphics boards and processors. Software exhibitors included firms with offerings for 3D modeling, animation, video production, visualization, rendering, streaming, video encoding and compression and visual effects.

We are all familiar with the stunning visual effects and imagery that are commonplace in movies, television and on the web. Because of the nature of the show there was an electronic theater, an animation theater, a cyberfashion show and an art gallery, all showing a blend of art and technology. Walking around the exhibit floor was like watching movie trailers in a movie theater. Impressive demonstrations were given of the how these effects are produced by the likes of Discreet (3dsmax), Alias (Maya), Pixar (Renderman) and Avid/SoftImage (XSI). Clearly these software packages require significant graphic and computational horsepower. The computer graphics industry has come a long, long
way since the days of Tron (1982) and the Norelco shaver commercial based upon technology from MAGI (Mathematics Application Group Inc.)

Leading vendors of graphics chips and graphics accelerator boards including NVIDAI, ATI and 3D Labs were also exhibiting. All three made significant product announcements during SIGGRAPH.


NVIDIA Corporation was founded in 1993. The company designs, develops and markets graphics processing units (GPUs), media and communications processors (MCPs), ultra-low power media processors (UMPs), and related software. These products have been incorporated into a wide variety of computing platforms, including consumer PCs, enterprise PCs, notebook PCs, professional workstations, handhelds, and video game consoles. NVIDIA is headquartered in Santa Clara, California and employs more than 2,000 people worldwide. In 2003 NVIDIA had revenues of $1.82 billion: NA $405, AP $1.26 and Europe $106 million with 4 customers accounting for 60% of revenue.

On August 9th NVIDIA introduced its Quadro FX 4400 model, part of a distinctive new family of professional graphics products and based on the PCI Express bus architecture. The new products include: FX 4400 the performance leader (135 million triangles/sec, 6.4 billion texels per sec fill rate) featuring 512MB of G-DDR3 frame buffer memory, a 256-bit memory interface, 35.2GB/sec of memory bandwidth, 3-pin stereo support, and dual DVI display connectors; FX 4400G delivering genlock and framelock capabilities; FX 1400 the popular price-performance model; and FX 540 with a high definition component output support for video previewing and recording.

By using an innovative PCI Express high-speed interconnect (HSI), a complex piece of networking technology that performs seamless, bi-directional interconnect protocol conversion at incredible speed lines, NVIDIA can transform its award-winning GeForce FX series into a full-family of PCI Express GPUs. Using this approach allows the firm to manufacture one GPU with support for two interfaces: PCIe and AGP. In the NV3x family, AGP is supported natively. The HSI bridge will provide quick access to PCI Express operability. For the NV4x family with PCI Express support, the same HSI bridge can be reversed for an AGP variant of the board.

The NVIDIA Quadro models support SLI (Scalable Link Interface) a new technology that enables two Quadro FX graphics boards to operate in a single workstation. SLI is based on an intelligent communication protocol embedded in the GPU and a high-speed digital interface on the graphics board to facilitate data flow. An extensive suite of software provides dynamic load balancing, and advanced rendering and compositing to ensure smooth frame rates and image quality.

NVIDIA and notebook manufacturers have co-designed MXM (Mobile PCI Express Module) interface to provide a consistent interface for mobile PCI Express graphics. The MXM initiative supports a wide range of graphics solutions from any GPU manufacturer.

ATI Technologies Inc.

Founded in 1985, ATI Technologies Inc. is a leader in the supply of graphics, video and multimedia solutions for desktop personal computers, mobile computing, DTV, cell phones, handhelds, consoles and workstation products. ATI Technologies comprises three core business units: Desktop, integrated and mobile and consumer. ATI employees 2,200 people and in 2003 had revenues of $1.38 billion: Canada $20, US $285, Europe $113, and AP $993 million; Components $962, Boards $397, and Other $25 million.

On June 1st ATI announced a complete line-up of FireGL workstation graphics accelerators with full native support for PCI Express bus architecture. The newly branded Visualization series will offer four new graphics accelerators; the high-end FireGL V7100, mid-range FireGL V5100, and redefining the entry-level segment, the FireGL V3200 and the FireGL V3100. With 256 MB of memory, and a visual processing unit (VPU) architected with a 16 pixel pipelines and six vertex processors, the FireGL V7100 doubles the rendering power of ATI's previous high end FireGL products. The FireGL V7100 supports dual DVI configurations, as well as dual link, the ability to support ultra high end resolution 9
megapixel displays.

On August 13th ATI announced that it had shipped its one millionth native PCI Express visual processing unit (VPU), speeding the industry transition to PCI Express.

3Dlabs was acquired by Singapore multinational Creative Technology Ltd. in early 2002 for $104 million and now operates as a wholly owned subsidiary. Creative was founded in Singapore in July 1, 1981. Product segments include audio (Sound Blaster), speakers, personal digital entertainment communication and graphics. For 2003 Creative had revenue of $702 million. Sales of graphics products are roughly 10% of revenue.

On June 15th 3DLABS announced the PCI Express-based Wildcat Realizm 800. The Wildcat Realizm 800 features a unique Wildcat Realizm Vertex/Scalability Unit (VSU) and dual Wildcat Realizm Visual Processing Units (VPU) to deliver over 700 GFLOPS of floating-point graphics processing. These work together to enable a software-compatible family of graphics accelerators ranging from a single VPU AGP 8x solution to a unique dual-VPU configuration, which takes full advantage of the enhanced bandwidth of PCI Express. The Wildcat Realizm VSU receives graphics commands at full bandwidth from a 16-lane PCI Express interface and processes vertices with 67 billion floating point operations per second in
a powerful SIMD array of highly optimized vector processors. The VSU is then able to drive two VPUs at full bandwidth over a 8.4GB/sec interface while optimally distributing graphical primitives between the two VPUs to achieve a genuine doubling of both geometry and fill-rate performance. The Wildcat Realizm 800 is slated for availability in the third calendar quarter of this year at an MSRP of US$2,799.


Graphic Processing Units are programmable. The industry standard for this purpose is OpenGL. The OpenGL API (Application Programming Interface) began as an initiative by Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI) to create a single, vendor-independent API for the development of 2D and 3D graphics applications. The specification was largely based on earlier work on the SGI IRIS GL library. SGI produced a sample implementation that hardware vendors could use to develop OpenGL drivers for their hardware. The sample implementation has been released under an open source license. Modifications to the OpenGL API are made through the OpenGL Architecture Review Board.

The OpenGL Architecture Review Board (ARB), an independent consortium formed in 1992, governs the OpenGL specification. Composed of many of the industry's leading graphics vendors, the ARB defines conformance tests and approves new OpenGL features and extensions. As of October 2003, voting members of the ARB include 3Dlabs, Apple, ATI, Dell Computer, Evans & Sutherland, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Intel, Matrox, NVIDIA, SGI, Sun.

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-- Jack Horgan, Contributing Editor.

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