Is Nvidia Freeing Itself From Intel's Shackles?


And in the wake of this week's news that Santa Clara, Calif.-based Nvidia will indefinitely postpone its development of chipsets for Intel's next-generation processors, it could be crucial for the smaller chip maker to carve out a truly independent path for itself.

Nvidia announced Thursday that it would be suspending its development of chipsets for Intel's next-generation CPUs, pending the outcome of an ongoing patent licensing dispute between Nvidia and its larger Santa Clara neighbor. Nvidia will continue to develop its Ion graphics platform for Intel Atom-based netbooks and nettops, but apparently has pulled the plug on integrated graphics products for Intel's latest Nehalem-class processors.

That would appear to be a blow to Nvidia's prospects in one of its core product segments, particularly after last year's win over Intel in placing Nvidia graphics in Apple's lineup of MacBooks. Nvidia will continue to make chipsets for mainstream PC processors from Advanced Micro Devices, according to the company.

Meanwhile, Sunnyvale, Calif.-based AMD has by many accounts leapfrogged Nvidia's leading GeForce 9 Series graphics products with the release of its own ATI Radeon HD 5800 products last month. It doesn't appear that Nvidia will be ready with its own next-generation GPU technology, code-named Fermi, until the second quarter of 2010.

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All of a sudden, Nvidia looks vulnerable in the very arena that made it rich and famous -- mainstream PC graphics. But according to some partners, the company anticipated this very thing and has planned accordingly.

"Intel is really a super-giant already. And when you start integrating video onto the CPU, it's all about Intel and AMD in that market," said one source at a prominent motherboard manufacturer and Nvidia partner, referring to plans by both Intel and AMD to move GPU functionality onto their future CPU dies.

As a result, Nvidia is directing its attention away from the mainstream PC market and toward opportunities at either extreme end of the computing industry, according to the source, who asked not to be named.

Nvidia is expecting as much as half of its future business to focus on development of its tiny Tegra consumer electronics platform, said the source. The Tegra platform couples Nvidia graphics with an ARM processor, bypassing Intel's x86 architecture entirely to deliver low-power visual computing that Microsoft recently incorporated into its new Zune HD media player.

"Jen-Hsun has been telling employees that more than 50 percent of their revenue will come from Tegra," the source claimed. "That means that everything else put together would be less than 50 percent. So you can see where there would be less concentration on the GeForce line of products coming in the near future."

At the other extreme, Nvidia partners say, the company has invested heavily in the growth of general purpose-GPU computing on high-end workstations and supercomputing installations. Nvidia has built its own proprietary GPU programming language, CUDA, and fostered an ecosystem of system builders and developers who have created a new market for powerful workstations and supercomputer nodes based on Nvidia's Tesla-branded graphics cards.

How much does Nvidia value its growing CUDA ecosystem? The company hosted its inaugural GPU Technology Conferencein San Jose, Calif., last week, dedicating the three-day event to CUDA developers and Tesla Preferred Partners such as AMAX Information Technologies, Penguin Computing and Colfax International.

A year ago, Nvidia's San Jose event emphasized the company's gaming and enthusiast roots, with a record-setting all-night LAN party, assorted "booth babes" and copious amounts of Guarana energy drinks for attendees. This year's conference dispensed with the fun and games, attendees said.

"This has been a great conference," AMAX President Jean Shih told at the event last week. "We didn't know what to expect from an event that's focused entirely on GPU computing, CUDA and Tesla, but the turnout has been great, the foot traffic around our booth has been really good."