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The ”NVIDIA Linux Advantage”

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NVIDIA Unified Driver Architecture – Multi-platform, mature support

It was not too long ago that any driver support for UNIX was cause for celebration. It was not uncommon for UNIX drivers to follow Windows drivers months after a product’s release date. And in many cases the drivers were strictly in a beta state. The mind set of many, if not most, peripheral makers has been Windows first, UNIX when we get to it.

Effective December 11, 2002, the NVIDIA Corporation seeks to change that mind set by introducing a single binary driver for over 200 NVIDIA products. The Unified Driver Architecture (UDA) shares 95% of its code base between all supported operating systems. The UDA features speed, stability, support, and forwards and backwards compatibility across multiple platforms, not just Windows. The 12/11 release also includes full support for the CineFX Architecture, the core feature set for the new GeForceFX line of graphics processors (GPU’s).

Linux Features

There are, of course, many flavors of UNIX available to consumers and industry. In recent years Linux has become the most popular version, even making inroads into Windows’ market share. Free and commercial distributions are available from Mandrake, Red Hat, SuSe, Slackware and many others. Computer OEM’s such as IBM, Dell, and HP also offer full Linux support in their products. You can even buy a Linux-based PC from Wal-Mart!

The widespread availability and popularity of Linux makes it a critical focal point for NVIDIA’s multi-platform endeavors. NVIDIA also began supporting the FreeBSD version of Unix (based on 4.4BSD, originally developed by the University of California, Berkeley and other contributors) in November of 2002. Accordingly, the new UDA offers the following Linux/UNIX features:

Overall

  • Complete support for OpenGL and advanced NVIDIA features.
  • “Industry’s fastest Linux graphics performance.”
    • As measured by SPEC Viewperf benchmark.
  • Largest provider of Linux graphics support for OEMs.
  • 100% support from NVIDIA engineers, not third parties.
  • Two dedicated public support e-mail aliases for all processors.

By platform

Desktop

IA32 (Intel Pentium and AMD Athlon)

  • Pixel and Vertex Shader support
  • OpenGL 1.4 with CineFX Architecture support
  • Multi-monitor support

AMD64 (Athlon 64)

  • Pixel and Vertex Shader support
  • OpenGL 1.4 with CineFX Architecture support

FreeBSD (first introduced 11/02)

  • Pixel and Vertex Shader support
  • OpenGL 1.4 with CineFX Architecture support

Mobile

IA32 (Intel Pentium and AMD Athlon)

  • Power management for hibernate/resume modes
  • Full mobile hot key support
  • Multi-monitor support

FreeBSD (first introduced 11/02)

  • Supports all NVIDIA processors
  • OpenGL 1.3 support
  • GLX 1.2 support

Multi-platform (nForce)

IA32 (AMD Athlon)

  • Multi-monitor support
  • USB/USB 2.0
  • FireWire
  • IDE
  • Audio
  • Networking
  • Communication

Workstation

IA32 (Intel Pentium and AMD Athlon)

  • Support for Quadro hardware features
  • Windows and Linux performance parity; SPEC Viewperf performance leader
  • ISV Certifications (i.e. Maya)
  • Multi-monitor support
  • OpenGL 1.4 with CineFX Architecture support

IA64 (Intel Itanium)

  • Full support for Quadro hardware features
  • Fastest IA64 Linux SPEC Viewperf performance
  • CineFX Architecture support

AMD64 (Athlon 64)

  • Industry’s first graphics solution for Athlon 64 processors
  • Quadro workstation ready
  • OpenGL 1.4 with CineFX Architecture support
  • GLX 1.3 support

FreeBSD

  • Industry’s first graphics solution for Athlon 64 processors
  • Supports Quadro hardware features
  • OpenGL 1.3 support
  • GLX 1.2 support

Driver Details

IA32 – v1.0-4180

  • OpenGL 1.4 with CineFX Architecture support
  • AGP 8X support
  • nForce2 IGP support
  • GLX 1.3 support

IA64 – v1.0-4050

  • OpenGL 1.4 with CineFX Architecture support
  • Improved Viewperf performance by up to 20% (see chart)
  • GLX 1.3 support

AMD64 – v1.0-4180

  • Industry’s first graphics driver for Athlon 64 processors
  • Quadro ready – accelerating
  • OpenGL 1.4 with CineFX Architecture support
  • GLX 1.3 support

IA64 Performance Differential w/new vs. previous drivers

 

Industry Use

Linux isn’t just for geeks and rebels against the Microsoft empire. Linux means business and industrial-strength applications, and NVIDIA is partnering with several significant industry leaders in developing and utilizing applications in UNIX with NVIDIA GPU’s. Among them are:

Magic Earth, a leading supplier of software and services for the upstream oil and gas industry,specializes in high-performance volume visualization and interpretation solutions. Magic Earth produces MagicDesk™, delivering the power of GeoProbe on Linux for detailed reservoir analysis on IBM Intellistation M Pro’s with NVIDIA’s Quadro4 900 XGL.

The Ohio Supercomputer Center (OSC) at Ohio State University deployed over 50 NVIDIA Quadro4 900 XGL workstation graphics boards for an integrated visualization cluster used to research large scale (Terascale) visualizations. These are used in the BALE (Blueprint for an Advanced Learning Environment) program that OSC uses to, according to Associate Director Al Stutz, “provide large scale, real-time volume rendering results. To be able to decompose the computation and graphics within the same node will provide real-time results for massive computations that have long been a need of researchers across the state of Ohio.”

Digital Domain, one of the largest digital studios in the world, is standardized on Quadro4 GPU’s and Linux. They host an integrated production studio that includes divisions for:

  • feature film visual effects (Titanic)
  • commercial production
  • music videos
  • location-based entertainment
  • feature film development

Michael Taylor, Vice President of the Digital Studio at Digital Domain, is very impressed with the level of service his company has received: “What has distinguished NVIDIA most for us has been their customer service and their commitment to helping Digital Domain experience a smooth transition to Linux. We’re also impressed with the quality of their Linux drivers and the level of cooperation we received to make sure that NUKE runs impeccably with their professional graphics hardware.”

Conclusions, And Why You Should Care

NVIDIA made it quite clear during their conference call for this release that they believe UNIX, especially in the form of Linux, has reached critical mass and requires their dedicated attention. It’s not enough, they believe, to treat Windows as 99.9% of the market. We agree. Many PC users are running multiple OS’s on one machine. Those with NVIDIA graphics cards should see performance results on their Linux/FreeBSD partition on par with that of their Windows partitions. If you’re using Linux or FreeBSD and own an NVIDIA GPU, or are considering buying one, then this is extremely welcome news. Other manufacturers and suppliers are sure to follow NVIDIA’s lead and that’s good news for non-Windows users.

What if you don’t use UNIX and don’t ever intend to? Should you care about NVIDIA’s focus on that OS? Absolutely! Take a look back at the processor platforms now supported, especially Athlon 64. AMD’s 64-bit CPU is backwards compatible with 32-bit operating systems, but it doesn’t make sense to saddle it with a 32-bit OS when there’s 64-bit UNIX OS’s ready and waiting to exploit that new CPU! The UNIX open source development community has been working closely with AMD to ensure 64-bit applications are available and optimized for the Athlon 64. It may be just a little optimistic to expect to jump into computing nirvana as soon as one can get an Athlon 64, but the experience NVIDIA and the open source development community will get working with 64-bit processing is invaluable. You do want them to work out all the bugs before your Windows PC goes 64-bit, right?

It’s also dangerous to think of UNIX as strictly a desktop, workstation, or server OS. UNIX has proven to be highly portable, stable, and features a comparatively small footprint. If your next handheld, computerized doohickey runs on Linux, don’t you want a fully supported GPU to go with it? How about one that’s actually been optimized for the OS?

The dedicated support being offered by NVIDIA for UNIX is also tremendous. All Windows driver sets are officially supported by the various board makers, not NVIDIA. NVIDIA is, in essence, removing the middle man from the equation. After all, driver support from board makers hasn’t exactly been overwhelming since they universally stoppped customizing NVIDIA’s drivers. UNIX users will now be able to go straight to the source for driver assistance and problems!

In summary, we realize that NVIDIA’s driver download site (which is here) won’t be overwhelmed on the 11th by anxious UNIX hordes. But we do believe the level of support NVIDIA is offering to current and future UNIX owners is a significant event. It certainly doesn’t mean the death of Windows, but it has to make the folks in the Pacific Northwest sweat just a little knowing their OS’es aren’t the only fully supported choices anymore.

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