With the expected massive increase in the use of ARM in the datacenter and for general purpose computing, Nvidia is getting ready to take advantage of ARM’s most glaring weakness, abysmal floating point performance compared to the x86 architecture everyone is already familiar with.
If there is one thing that Nvidia GPUs do well, it’s math. Many of the world’s top supercomputers already combine large numbers of the Nvidia Tesla co-processor GPU to aid them in achieving their top tier performance. And while Nvidia is already working on its own 640bit ARM designs, they announced this week that the software piece of the GPU puzzle, their CUDA programming environment was now available with top-level ARM support in version 5.5 as well as with support for a broad selection of Linux flavors. This allows developers to use the CUDA tools (compiler, debugger, performance analysis, etc.), to build new or port existing applications to the ARM environment that can make use of the GPU-accelerated math capabilities that the Nvidia GPUs provide.
From a datacenter perspective, GPU equipped ARM servers become a much more viable alternative to traditional servers if they are able to deliver equivalent or near-equivalent processing of IT workloads at significantly reduced energy budgets. Widespread adoption would also allow a more modular approach to IT workloads. For example, if you are doing low-level tasks that could be handled by ARM-based servers without GOPU support and such devices are cheaper in terms of both CAPEX and OPEX than even low-power x86 alternatives, then ARM is a natural fit.
But if your choice of x86-based systems was based on better math performance, ARM servers that allowed a modular upgrade path by adding GPU co-processing to offer equivalent capabilities might drive your basic purchase model more to the ARM side. If Nvidia and/or other ARM proponents are able to deliver a building block style server environment, where users are able to pick and choose components that can almost be dynamically added to the server farms to change the processing capabilities while retaining the same basic architecture, then the traditional x86 advantages in the datacenter may be lost.
It hasn’t happened yet, but the potential arrival of 64-bit ARM coupled with high-performance GPUs looks to change the landscape picture of the datacenter significantly.