Tesla is NVIDIA's high performance computing (HPC) business, with customers from the seismic, financial, medical or academic markets. The workloads are things most of us would never remotely come close to doing, stuff like looking for oil or breast cancer detection. These markets also have the sort of extremely data parallel workloads that could work really well on a GPU, which are very good at working on a lot of data at the same time. A single high end GPU easily has hundreds of execution units that can run in parallel, while a single quad-core CPU may only have a dozen or so. Through C for CUDA, NVIDIA started enabling these markets to port their applications (or parts of them) from x86 CPUs to NVIDIA GPUs.
NVIDIA also made a decision to make its GPU architectures much more flexible, a decision that resulted in the G80 chip at the heart of the GeForce GTX 8800. At the same time, NVIDIA began investing in programming languages to make writing for its flexible GPUs much easier, and also fed HPC feedback into its GPU design cycle: the GT200 was more HPC friendly than the G80 and Fermi is even more HPC friendly than GT200.
NVIDIA believes there's roughly $1b to be made in these HPC markets
over the next 24 months, and although it's only made a bit over $10m so far, the company thinks that Fermi is going to be the turning point for Tesla revenue. Let's be realistic, though: at its peak, NVIDIA used to pull in around $1b in a single quarter
. Tesla alone won't be enough for NVIDIA, not at those numbers.
Tegra is the big one.
Tegra is NVIDIA's SoC brand -- as we talked about last time
, the smartphones we love reading about are based on highly integrated SoCs (system on a chip). That's a CPU, GPU, some other specialized processing, memory/storage and maybe even a modem. Tegra contains nearly all NVIDIA-developed technology -- and like everything else in the smartphone space, it's based on ARM, which means NVIDIA won't be dependent on x86 CPUs that will soon have integrated GPUs.
While Tesla depends on NVIDIA's continued development of high end GPUs, Tegra does
not. The architectures share very little in common with the desktop chips, they just need to be efficient and low power. They are completely separate designs from what is on NVIDIA's video cards. If push comes to shove, Tegra has enough upside to let NVIDIA exit the PC business entirely and just make SoCs. Marvell told me that the market for ARM-based SoCs is expected to grow to around five billion chips per year -- if NVIDIA can capture a sizable portion of that market, we're easily talking a couple of billion dollars per year. Tegra could be just as big as NVIDIA's GPU business today.
But going from zero to significant market share in the SoC space is difficult. The established players there are companies like Marvell, Samsung and Qualcomm. Even Intel looks like an unlikely underdog in that market.
Although Tegra got a lot of attention with the Zune HD, it's based on an older ARM11 core with the usual general purpose performance shortcomings -- and it doesn't necessarily look so hot compared to other performance oriented SoCs that have moved to Cortex A8
. That said, NVIDIA plans on updating its Tegra SoCs once a year, similar to its GPU update cycle. Given the slow level of progress we've seen in the SoC space, there's room for NVIDIA's Tegra approach to do well -- update it annually and it may end up being fast enough to raise a few brows.
Looking at it this way, the biggest threat to NVIDIA today doesn't come from Intel or AMD, but rather Imagination Technologies, whose graphics cores are heavily used by Apple and Samsung in smartphones -- and NVIDIA believes its strengths as a GPU maker on the PC side will give it the advantage here. I'm willing to give NVIDIA the benefit of doubt, but we had better see a big splash in 2010 with Tegra and Tegra 2.
So. Will NVIDIA remain a high end GPU maker for PCs, will it see success in HPC, or will it move entirely to the application processor/SoC space? That future is at least a few years away, and as AMD has already shown us, a lot can happen in a few years. A lot more than I could predict at least.
[Zune HD image courtesy of iFixit
Anand Shimpi is CEO and Editor-in-chief of AnandTech. Contact him at anand AT anandtech DOT com or on Twitter at @anandshimpi. Views expressed here are his own.