by May 2, 2011 0 comments

Vikram Gill, Director, Workstations and Consumer Solutions, CSMB, APJ at Dell

Graphics hardware vendors divide their offerings distinctly into professional and consumer market segments. Popular consumer graphics cards such as AMD ATI Radeon and NVIDIA GeForce offer sufficient performance for gaming enthusiasts as well as mainstream corporate and home PC users. However, even though the underlying GPU architecture is similar to the consumer products, professional graphics cards such as AMD’s ATI FirePro and NVIDIA’s Quadro line add value for the workstation customer in four important areas: application certification, driver optimizations and stability, additional features and lifecycle management.

Application certification

OEMs need to work closely with professional workstation application software vendors to regularly test their applications with their workstations, professional-level graphics cards and their associated drivers to ensure maximum compatibility and stability. Only after ensuring excellent reliability and solid performance, the complete solutions (including platform configuration, software version, graphics controllers and driver revision) should then be ‘certified’ so customers can use them with confidence. It is important to note that most software partners in the workstation space only certify workstations with professional graphics, making no such effort with consumer graphics.OEMs need to put a priority on having certification with the most often requested configurations before or shortly after introducing new graphics cards into their workstations.

Driver stability and optimization

Design professionals demand fully tested, robust drivers to ensure maximum productivity, compatibility and uptime. While gamers are happy to take a chance on the latest driver that might give them a performance edge over the competition, design shops prefer standardization, reliable and consistent results, and stability. At the same time, workstation users need full floating-point precision for superior image quality, high performance for large datasets and often ultra-high resolution support.

Professional graphics cards have drivers that are tested and tuned for professional graphics applications to deliver optimum results, and driver release cycles that are optimized for stability. In addition, drivers in professional cards often enable performance enhancements for certain applications that are not available using consumer cards.

Additional feature sets

Application-specific features and optimizations are often available only on professional-level graphics cards. Examples include:

Custom plug-in accelerator drivers, 30-bit color support for increased color resolution, frame lock/genlock support for synchronization of frames and video sources, tiling of multiple displays, etc.

Lifecycle management

Graphics hardware vendors make no promises about how long their consumer-level graphics cards will be available or supported. These cards may be updated or replaced in as little as a few months as the graphics vendors enable features or driver optimizations for the latest games in the constant race to help gamers get that performance edge. The professional market, however, demands performance and features for professional class applications as well as lifecycle management-a commitment that the graphics card will be available and serviced for a given amount of time. This allows for a customer to standardize on a configuration and be able to purchase that configuration over the course of several quarters. To address this demand, NVIDIA and AMD source their professional Quadro and FirePro graphics cards for an extended period, typically 18 months.

Choosing a professional 3D graphics card

Once decided on a professional graphics card, workstation users must choose a configuration that best fits their needs for functionality and certification/support. But buyers should remember, in general, stepping up to more advanced graphics cards will be accompanied by: more shader processors for faster rendering at greater level of detail, more frame buffer memory to support a larger number of textures and other buffers, and increased memory bandwidth to sustain the faster rendering.

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