Get Ready For GPU Virtualization

CPU virtualization

"We'll see this technology really start to appear on systems shipping maybe six months from now," said James Huang, product marketing manager for Amax Information Technologies of Fremont, Calif., discussing demos being shown at this week's VMworld event in San Francisco.

"My understanding is that Nvidia is in the process of qualifying more software for virtualizing GPUs," Huang said. "I think it would be a great thing. The GPU workstations we build would be able to virtually talk to existing infrastructure, meaning there would be a lot of opportunities for us to sell this technology into the HPC clusters."

In fact, Nvidia tipped its virtualization hand back in March of this year, when the Santa Clara, Calif.-based company released Nvidia SLI Multi-OS in concert with Parallels, a Swiss virtualization software developer. Nvidia SLI Multi-OS technology is baked into the graphics chip maker's Quadro FX 3800, Quadro FX 4800 and Quadro FX 5800 GPUs to allow multiple users to take advantage of the graphics processing power of a single Quadro-based graphics workstation in a virtualized environment. That technology already is included in certain configurations of Hewlett-Packard's Z800 workstation.

Nvidia rival Advanced Micro Devices also is developing virtualization technology for its high-end ATI graphics processors, and the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company showcased its own GPU virtualization demo at VMworld this week.

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"Virtualization does not and should not stop at the CPU," said Margaret Lewis, an AMD product marketing director, at a joint press briefing with VMware at VMworld. "Virtualization is not a workload, it's a methodology."

For VMworld, AMD built a next-generation system around two 12-core AMD Opteron 6100 series central processors -- code-named Magny-Cours, those chips are scheduled for release in early 2010 -- and its own SR5690 chipset and FirePro graphics cards. The company demonstrated execution of the 3DMark benchmark from within a virtual machine running on VMware ESX 4.0, with AMD's experimental I/0 virtualization technology guiding the graphics pass-through.

It all adds up to a lot of excitement on the part of midsize systems integrators such as Amax and Colfax International of Sunnyvale, Calif. In a challenging economic climate and facing stiff competition from larger OEMs on commodity hardware, these companies have found a good deal of purchase in pushing out highly customized products that leverage cutting-edge technologies such as general-purpose GPU computing, said Colfax CEO Shah Guatam.

"Looking at absolute commodity plays, economies of scale come into play. Under those conditions, it's very difficult to compete," Guatam said, adding that in addition to its traditional strength in HPC and the public sector, Colfax has built up a thriving GPU workstation business in just a few years.

Regionally, Huang said that North America and China have so far been the strongest markets for Amax's GPU computing products and would likely lead the way in embracing GPU virtualization as well.