New tech allows math apps on graphics chips

Nvidia Corp. has released a new computing architecture that allows developers to perform numerical computation on the company’s graphics processing units instead of relying on standard processors.

The CUDA (compute unified device architecture) technology is aimed at users in math-heavy applications such as product design, data analysis, technical computing and game physics. A CUDA-enabled processor recruits the graphics card’s parallel data cache for numeric processing, harnessing up to 128 1.35GHz cores to cooperate as they compute.

Nvidia is selling CUDA today on its new GeForce 8800 graphics card, and will use the technology on future Quadro Professional Graphics products as well. The company is also offering a C-compiler for GPUs, another feature they hope will lure developers to use more graphics processing units.

Nvidia engineers created the new architecture as they were designing a new graphics platform to handle the new family of quad-core chips from Intel Corp., expected to hit the market on Nov. 13.

Multiple-core chips can break a task into several threads and perform them simultaneously, saving time and power compared to standard techniques. In a similar pattern, an application using CUDA technology would use the graphics processor to solve fine-grained data-processing problems, and use the multicore processor to solve coarser tasks like data management, Nvidia said.

By using its graphics cards to carry some of the workload of standard processors, Nvidia is also opening a new front in its competition with longtime rival ATI Technologies Inc. ATI was acquired in October by chip vendor Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD), which immediately announced plans to create hybrid graphics chips and CPUs (central processing units).

Nvidia also announced on Monday that it would acquire PortalPlayer Inc., a maker of semiconductors and software for digital music players. Taken together, its recent moves mark a clear signal that Nvidia plans to survive as a stand-alone graphics company by maximizing its opportunities to provide technology for new applications, said IdaRose Sylvester, a senior research analyst with IDC.

“Nvidia seems to be positioning itself this week for a strong future,” she said. “By staying strong in gaming, but exploring newer areas for the company, such as multimedia handhelds and industrial applications, Nvidia appears to be staying focused on graphics expertise, using it as leverage into these other applications.”

CUDA technology is also a way for Nvidia to persuade its customers to keep buying gaming PCs instead of gaming consoles like the upcoming Wii from Nintendo Co. Ltd. and PlayStation 3 from Sony Computer Entertainment Inc. Nvidia says it will “transform the PC into the premier gaming platform” by using two new products — the GeForce 8800 graphics processing unit and the nForce 680i SLI media and communications processor. Nvidia created the nForce 680i to handle the increased processing power of Intel’s Core 2 Duo and pending Core 2 Quad processors.

A PC with those new GeForce and nForce products will be the best high-end platform for using new technologies like HD-DVD, Blu-ray and Microsoft Corp.’s Windows Vista, said Jen-Hsun Huang, president and chief executive of Nvidia in a written statement.

The nForce 680i can use its dual Ethernet ports to send a 30-minute television show to another PC in just one second, Nvidia said. And The GeForce 8800 will be the first processor to support Microsoft’s DirectX 10, a new programming interface included in the Vista OS. That capability will allow the chip to host the latest game titles, including “Crysis,” “Hellgate: London, World in Conflict,” “Company of Heroes,” “Microsoft Flight Simulator X” and “Age of Conan.”

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