The Future of GPUs: To The Cloud and Beyond?

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GPUs, an integral part of computing has been steadily improving over the past decade with incremental increases in computing power, power consumption and power to cost ratio. The 2 main GPU manufacturers in the world, NVIDIA and AMD have been arch rivals for years and both offer similar scale products that compete.

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The great battle between Red and Green (Image Credits: Imgur)

It’s like Samsung vs Apple in the GPU market. Every 2 years or so a new line of GPUs would be announced and fanboys and girls from both brands would argue their merits and weaknesses on countless internet forums until a new cycle begins with the next major announcement. 

A GPU is not only about gaming

GPUs are mostly known for their gaming pedigree with Nvidia’s GeForce line of products competing with AMD Radeon. Apart from gaming, a GPUs enhanced number crunching capabilities (after all the graphic simulation is mostly about number crunching in the background) make them useful for other applications that require serious number crunching such as, multimedia editing, running complex simulations, CAD designs, etc.

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GPUs are used to carry our complex simulations much faster than a CPU (Image Credits: SolidWorks)

The possible applications are so diverse, that both Nvidia and AMD offer a different line of GPUs dedicated and optimized for these tasks. Nvidia has the Quadro workstation cards competing against AMD’s Radeon Pro line of workstation GPUs. 

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In addition to gaming graphics cards, both AMD and Nvidia have a line up of powerful workstation cards as well (Image Credits: Gamers Nexus)

GPUs are also used increasingly for mining cryptocurrency. Almost all cryptocurrencies generate value by validating the transactions that happen in the blockchain. As the blockchain gets larger, the validation process gets more complex requiring more compute power. Over time, the compute power required to generate the cryptocurrency value increases. 

When a new cryptocurrency goes public, the initial compute requirement for currency generation is less. There comes a sweet spot in compute power required that the Cost/Performance of standard desktop GPUs are extremely profitable for cryptocurrency mining. This results in some gaming spec GPUs having so much demand that it is very difficult to find them in the open market as was the case in early last year

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With the popularity for GPUs rising for mining, finding a graphics card was akin to looking for a needle in a haystack (Image Credits: Bitcoinist)

Now different graphics card manufacturers such as Sapphire and ASUS offer specialized editions of popular graphics cards that are optimized for mining. This is done by stripping away different features found on your typical GPU for any kind of graphical work. That means stripping away display ports. In some cases, we’ve seen cooling fans replaced with heat sinks to make them more compact. 

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Asus, for example, has released a Mining edition of their GeForce GTX 1060 and the Radeon RX470 without any display ports (Image Credits: TechSpot)

The great fight in the clouds

With the current trend of moving computing infrastructure to the cloud, both Nvidia and AMD are highly sought out as technology partners for big cloud players such as Google and Amazon. Most companies are now moving their digital platforms to the cloud. Traditionally any company which needed to maintain a computer system needed to maintain expensive hardware in their premises. This meant valuable physical space needed to be either allocated on-premise or rent out a remote server location. Then you needed an army of personnel to monitor and maintain this infrastructure. 

This is an overhead that does not generate any direct value to your business. But with cloud computing, another option became open for enterprises. They can offload this computing infrastructure headache to a reputed third party company. You just need to evaluate your requirement and needed compute capacity and buy the necessary compute power and storage from the cloud.

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Mining Rigs like this generate a ton of heat and also consume a lot of electricity (Image Credits: Bitcoin Forum)

What sweetens the deal further is that, when the business grows, you are no longer mired in another hardware buying nightmare which can take months if not years. But with the cloud, all you need to do is negotiate with your cloud vendor and buy a bigger capacity. Scaling your digital infrastructure to match the company’s growth becomes a lot easier with the cloud. 

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Over time, ASIC (Application specific integrated circuits) were developed to provide a more efficient way to mine cryptocurrency (Image Credits: Amazon)

This new found demand for cloud means cloud hardware manufacturers are benefiting greatly in order to supply the necessary compute power and storage for vendors. Nvidia has their dedicated line of Tesla GPUs while AMD has their Radeon Instinct GPUs. These are optimized and made to be used in cloud data centers and supercomputers. With the big 3 cloud vendors, Amazon, Microsoft, and Google vying for the cloud market, they turn to chipmakers such as Nvidia, Amazon, and Intel more and more. 

Next Generation Consoles promise to be even better

But the story is not over for the gaming side of things. During the current console generation, NVIDIA lost out heavily to AMD as the 2 major console manufacturers Sony and Microsoft decided to go with AMD to power their home consoles, the PS4 and Xbox One. Nvidia had to be content with providing its Tegra X1 mobile chipset for the Nintendo Switch console. 

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The Nvidia Tegra X1 currently powers the Nintendo Switch and the latest Tegra chip may power the latest Nintendo Switch as well (Image Credits: Informed Pixel)

But a new console generation is around the corner. Sony has already confirmed that it’s going with AMD’s new Navi architecture based GPU for the next PlayStation console. Now we know that Microsoft is also going to power their next console with AMD again. On the other hand, NVIDIA may very well partner with Nintendo for their next consoles. There is already talk of a refreshed Nintendo Switch console with powerful internals, and it may very well be powered by NVIDIA.

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Microsoft’s latest console Project Scarlett is rumored to have an AMD GPU at its core promising 120FPS at 8K resolutions with almost no loading screen (Image Credits: WIndows Central

These are indeed exciting times for the GPU industry. Computing power becomes cheaper and more accessible. Simulations, gaming and other applications that require heavy computation power become more accessible increasing the demand for GPUs. As consumers, we can only benefit from them with more real like graphics, more accurate simulation results, better accuracy in machine learning applications, etc. 

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