Nvidia shows off next-gen 3D graphics and rendering hardware

Nvidia debuts its next-gen Pascal platform, delays Volta, and launches the Iray VCA rendering server.

Nvidia has announced its next GPU platform, called Pascal, which will dramatically rearchitect the traditional graphics card by replacing the PCI Express bus and combining it with a new 3D memory technology. 

Nvidia also announced what it calls the Iray VCA (right): a £30,000 virtual computing appliance for rendering 3D scenes using Nvidia's intensive Iray rendering engine. This uses modelled photons to produce photorealistic images at up to 60 times the speed of today's Nvidia-powered workstations.

Use the slideshow controls above and right to learn more about Pascal and the Iray VCA.

Nvidia will ship the Pascal processor in 2016, Nvidia chief executive Jen-Hsun Huang (right) said during the keynote address of its GPU Technology Conference, which focuses on the application of GPUs in computational problems. The conference originally was predicated on Nvidia's CUDA programming language, which allowed scientists to program a GPU much like a computer.

It will replace Maxwell, the graphics architecture Nvidia announced last month.

Nvidia faces a thorny one. The problem, as Huang explained it, is relatively simple to express: GPUs are among the biggest chips ever created, but the demands for increasing GPU performance are unceasing.

Accessing the memory used as a scratchpad for GPU computations can be improved by using a wider bus interface, but that adds more pins – and there can be a physical limit to how many pins can surround a chip. Simply forcing more data through those pins at higher and higher clock speeds increases the power consumed – and the heat produced – to unmanageable levels.

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NVLink was codeveloped with IBM, and will incorporated into the OpenPower architecture that IBM is spearheading, Nvidia said. NVLink will be used not only to connect a GPU to the motherboard, but also to connect GPUs to each other, with improvements of up to 5X in terms of GPU to GPU scaling, Huang said.

Likewise, scaling is one of the problems that the new 3D architecture will help solve. Nvidia's existing Kepler architecture already provides 288 Gbytes/s of memory bandwidth, according to Huang, but that too will inevitably increase over time. By stacking memory and other chips on top of one another, "in a couple of years we're going to take bandwidth to a whole new level," Huang said.

And if that's not enough, Nvidia has an Iray VCA to offer you. Essentially, the VCA is a remote server designed as a render farm"for companies, taking a scene and rendering it as quickly as possible. The technology uses Nvidia's Iray rendering engine – which is compatible with 3D suites including Autodesk's Maya and 3ds Max. Iray models photons that fly though the air, bouncing off objects and being absorbed by them. Each VCA contains 8 GPUs for a total of 23,000 CUDA cores, which can access 12GB of memory per VCA.

"What would take an hour to render, now takes a minute," Huang said.

Each Iray VCA can be tied to others, using Nvidia software to connect them together and run them in parallel. Nvidia combined 19 Iray VCAs together to produce the equivalent of a petaflop – that's equivalent to the fastest supercomputer in the world, six years ago, Huang said.

Combining realistic graphics with a dynamic scene has typically been the provenance of CGI rendering, but that has also moved from the big screen to the gaming.

Huang showed off a demonstration of the next-generation Unreal Engine 3 running on top of the new GeForce GTX Titan Z gamer-focussed graphics card that looked, in places, completely real. But there's obviously a price: the Titan Z will cost $3000 (around £1,800), although it will provide 5,760 CUDA cores with two Kepler cores inside of it, 12GB of memory, and 8 teraflops of computing power. Oh, and it will consume 2,000 watts by itself.

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