Saving the Biggest News for Last

NVIDIA decided to wait until the 11th hour to drop a bombshell on the media with information on the first non-NVIDIA chipset to natively support SLI multi-GPU technology. Come in and see all the details of ‘how’ and ‘why’ as well as what it means to the rest of the NVIDIA world.
NVIDIA has always been known for having a strong marketing team and the relative success of NVIDIA’s first hosted trade show is evidence of that.  Apparently though the NVIDIA team was scrambling to come off the show with some hard news that would excite the core gamers and in a last minute move to save the opportunity of having hundreds of press at your disposal, NVIDIA dropped a bomb shell of a news story on us at the 11th hour.  

We have known for some time now that NVIDIA would not be producing a chipset for Bloomfield, Intel’s consumer products based around the Nehalem architecture we detailed just this week.  This of course raised the question of where SLI would fit into what will obviously become the new de facto standard for high end gaming systems.  NVIDIA answered with the announcement they would allow the nForce 200 chip to be implemented by board manufacturers for SLI support in a similar fashion to how the original Intel Skulltrail boards were released.  From out talks with board manufacturers though, not many were planning on implementing the chip due to heat issues, board layout and design problems and it just in general being another headache to worry about with a new product launch.  NVIDIA took that feedback to heart it would seem and came up with this:

NVIDIA is going to allow the Intel X58 chipset to natively support SLI graphics configurations.

Let me let that sink in.  

No need for an nForce 200, no need for any special logic of any kind, no need for an NVIDIA product but the graphics cards themselves.  Obviously this is GREAT news for the gamer – now we can finally get high quality motherboards that are reasonably priced and will run both NVIDIA SLI and AMD CrossFire GPU configurations.  We are very excited about the idea of unifying our platform selections for the hardware leaderboard, for using a single motherboard for all our graphics card testing and just excited about what it means for high-end PC gaming in the big picture.  

We should note that this SLI licensing arrangement will ONLY affect upcoming X58 motherboards – this will not be retroactive to motherboards using X48, X38 or any other chipset.  Why?  Because NVIDIA already offers SLI solutions for those processors and decided they wanted to maintain the control on that platform.  The driver that supports SLI on X58 chipset motherboards that meet the certified criteria will be available in time for the Bloomfield/Nehalem processor launch in late fall / early winter.  Expect to see reviews of the new Intel CPU using SLI technology as well.

But…it raised some interesting issues that needed to be addressed including the licensing of the SLI technology, the previously talked about “technical requirements” that required NVIDIA logic and much more.  Read below for my thoughts.  

What PCI Express Configurations are Supported

I am happy to report that with the Intel X58 chipset NVIDIA will supporting basically the entire gamut of PCIe division options.  Motherboards with as few as two PCIe x16 slots and as many as four PCIe x16 slots will be able to run SLI.  Interestingly, though NVIDIA doesn’t have a four-card SLI option today, they are supporting 3-Way SLI + a four graphics card for PhysX in addition to standard 3-Way SLI, 2-Way SLI and Quad SLI with two dual-GPU graphics boards.

Bombshell of NVISION08: SLI goes native on Intel X58 - Graphics Cards 3

Bombshell of NVISION08: SLI goes native on Intel X58 - Graphics Cards 4

You can see in this diagram that pretty much all the options you expect to see on an X58 motherboard will be able to run NVIDIA SLI.  What is actually unsurprising is to see NVIDIA continue to try and push the nForce 200 chip as a “top speed” option that will allow for up to four full x16 PCIe slots.  Even NVIDIA admitted that PCIe bandwidth is only limited in a few CUDA applications and that consumers would like never know the difference.  But they were still adament that some board vendors would make boards with the nForce 200 chip as a way to differentiate their product – I hope not and think we’ll only see the ASUS X58 motherboard that has already been developed with the nForce 200 ever be released.

The Certification Process – what your board needs to succeed

While this announcement is great news, do not think that every Intel X58 motherboard released will have SLI support.  To the contrary, NVIDIA will now be hand testing each motherboard model that a board vendor would like to enable SLI on for compatibility and approval before they can use the SLI logo or name.  While this at first seems like a positive thing to do (cutting down on user issues) in reality it is all part of business decision to continue to control the SLI brand.

Motherboards that wish to have the SLI technology enabled will have to submitted to NVIDIA’s team and then the motherboard vendor will get a “cookie” – a piece of code that goes into the SBIOS on the motherboard that will be searched for by the NVIDIA GPU driver to enable the SLI technology.  This is an attempt to get around the issue of passing out completely unlocked drivers that could enable SLI on all motherboards by requiring a hardware verification of some kind.  It is likely that this cookie will be cracked within days if not hours of the platforms getting into enthusiast hands but NVIDIA is really only hoping to control OEMs and ODMs in this regard.  

Of course, nothing is free in NVIDIA-world: motherboard vendors and system builders that wish to make an SLI-ready X58 motherboard will be paying a fee.  Call it a licensing fee, a royalty, whatever you want but the fact is that NVIDIA wants some cash for the SLI name and they are going to get it; with or without selling you a physical chip like the nForce 200.  I am actually curious how close the price of the nForce 200 chip was to the price of the SLI licensing agreement…

The “Technical Requirements”

One question I asked was why we had been told for years that SLI required the special logic in the nForce chipsets and/or nForce 200 chip only now to find it working fine on a third-party’s hardware?  Could it be that all this time the “magic” of the nForce and SLI technical requirements was made up and used to create a business model for their chipset division?  While the real answer is yes in my opinion, NVIDIA would never admit as much.  Instead we were told that NVIDIA had simply found a way around the two hardware “requirements” of SLI: PW Shortcut and Broadcast.  The PCIE Gen 2 standard implemented the PW Shortcut technology and the NVIDIA driver team apparently just now found a way to implement the function of Broadcast in software rather than hardware.  

Update (8/28/08): Apparently some people took this paragraph to mean that NVIDIA started SLI in order to create a chipset business – that is not what I meant.  Rather, I am simply saying that NVIDIA created the “technical requirements” for SLI in order to keep the technology solely on their own chipset platforms.
Our original 3-Way SLI test system

This announcement today basically proves my contention with the nForce and SLI “technical issues” from day 1 – if NVIDIA had just admitted that SLI was kept on its own core logic solely for business reasons they would have looked bad at the time but would have saved face today. p

How does this change nForce nGeneral?

One interesting thought from all of this discussion is how today’s announcement paints the light on the nForce chipset in the long run.  Obviously we have talked in length about the chances of NVIDIA leaving the chipset market after their current cycle of already developed chipsets is out, and now the discussion is renewed.  While I still believe that NVIDIA will continue to make chipsets for Intel and AMD processors for the foreseeable future, all with integrated graphics cores in them, I think the day of the high-end chipset from NVIDIA is done.  We have known for some time that the only real reason NVIDIA’s enthusiasts chipsets remained on the market was for SLI support and now that X58 will support SLI technology natively, and that NVIDIA has said they are not making a Bloomfield chipset of their own, it’s hard to see this change reverting.  In other words, if NVIDIA expects consumers to accept a revoking of SLI licensing on future chipsets they are going to piss a lot of people off.  

Final Thoughts

I know this editorial is coming off in a rather negative light – and I don’t really want that to be the case.  The fact that NVIDIA is finally willing to license the SLI technology and let it run natively on the Intel X58 chipset is tremenous news for gamers and the market and is a step in the right direction for the “ecosystem” that NVIDIA was promoting at NVISION08.  But it also raises a lot of interesting questions that are being addressed in this editorial and will be in debate for some time come.  

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