HYDRA Engine Hardware Implementation
From a purely hardware perspective, the HYDRA chip takes in a single PCIe x16 connection and outputs two full PCIe 2.0 x16 connections.  Depending on the partner’s implementation method, that could connect to two GPUs or split into four x8 PCIe 2.0 connections for four GPUs.  What might you find the HYDRA chip on in the future?  There are two likely scenarios for potential designs: on a motherboard or on a graphics board. 

On a motherboard, including a HYDRA Engine chip would allow ANY chipset to support BOTH SLI and CrossFire technology since it is completely chipset independent and doesn’t require SLI or CrossFire licensing.  That would enable said motherboard to offer 2-4 GPU scaling with NVIDIA or AMD graphics cards – a VERY compelling solution but also likely an expensive one. 

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The HYDRA technology would also likely find its way onto custom design graphics boards in place of the standard PCIe bridge – ala the Radeon HD 4870 X2.  Lucid is claiming nearly linear scaling on up to 4 GPUs compared to 50-70% with SLI or CrossFire and thus a board vendor could really make a top performing part and stand out from the crowd or potential build one with slower chips for a new price-performance option. 

I was told implementations would likely be available early in 2009 and we are eager to see what becomes of them.

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As for the chip itself, obviously Lucid is being very close lipped about it.  The chip runs very cool and draws just about 5 watts of power.  Inside the chip you will find small RISC processor and the custom (secret sauce) logic behind the algorithm powering the HYDRA Engine.  The production chip was JUST finished yesterday and will be sampling to partners soon – though they wouldn’t indicate WHO those partners were.

Questions We Asked

Here are some more details we inquired about that you are likely interested in:

How can Lucid be sure their task based distribution methods accurately represent what the game designers intended?  An interesting dilemma – with the company essentially taking control of the graphics pipeline there are all kinds of ways for the company to accidently screw some things up.  Lucid answered this by telling us their quality assurance program was already well under way.  In fact, they use a pixel-by-pixel comparison engine comparing the HYDRA images to a single GPU render to check for errors or problems.

What about the possibility of combining an AMD and NVIDIA GPU to work together to render one image?  This was my biggest hope after hearing the initial introduction.  Apparently it won’t be happening though as the operating system prevents multiple graphics drivers from running 3D applications at the same time.  Since a 6800 and 9800 use the same driver from NVIDIA, both may operate in 3D mode without a hassle but combining AMD and NVIDIA just won’t work.  Let’s hope for the future…

How will tasks be distributed in greatly exaggerated card matchups?  For example, in that 6800 and 9800 combination mentioned above?  With the HYDRA Engine it is apparently very easy – the software and chip recognize the potential for each and distribute the appropriate number of tasks to each card.  Maybe 5 tasks to 1 or something like that; the results are then combined by the HYDRA chip and sent to a single GPU for output.

HYDRA Engine by Lucid - Multi-GPU Technology with No Strings Attached - Graphics Cards 10

Will integrated graphics cores be supported?  Nope – Lucid says that isn’t in the card though I can’t help but think that it would be trivial to add and beneficial for low-cost systems. 

Can HYDRA support multiple monitors while in rendering mode?  YES!  This was one of the cooler parts of the demo; while playing Crysis at over 60 FPS on a pair of 9800 GTs we had a web browser window open on the second monitor.  Even more impressive was that Lucid claimed we could be playing 1080p video back on that other monitor and the HYDRA system would adapt easily.  With one GPU doing HD decoding it would simply end up with less “tasks” assigned to it as its load would be higher than the other GPU(s) inside the system.  Scaling would be lower of course, but the transition would be completely transparent to the end user. 

What DirectX versions are supported or will be supported and what about OpenGL?  Right now, only DX9 is working though DX10.1 will be ready by the end of the year.  With DX10 and DX11’s implementations of multi-GPU data improving and adding to the HYDRA Engine technology will only get easier for team compared to the work they had to do on DX9.  OpenGL is supported by the HYDRA Engine as well. 

Could this technology be applied to GPGPU work as well?  Yes, though that is still far into the future.  One area the team did say would be easily taken advantage of by their technology is ray tracing with its incredibly task-oriented workflow. 

Can HYDRA really be used with ANY graphics technology?  Yep, Lucid said you could even setup some VIA S3 Chrome cards if you really wanted too…

Questions We Have

Of course, not all is golden for Lucid quite yet – we have some questions and concerns about the technology that we hope will be addressed as the technology matures.  Top on my list is the support that Lucid will be required to maintain if the technology succeeds.  While much of the HYDRA Engine is automated there will be times when new games, new game engines and new rendering methods will be implemented by game developers that will require continual updating and tweaking on the driver side of the technology.  With as large as NVIDIA’s and AMD’s driver teams are, even they cannot always keep up with the many games that are released throughout the year. 

My other major concern is that this technology could end up like AGEIA’s PhysX – great potential but gobbled up by one of the mega-players rather than turning into a product on its own.  Honestly after hearing the entire presentation I was curious why NVIDIA or AMD hadn’t already thought of this – the potential for being bought up is extremely high here. 

Final Thoughts

Overall I have to say I was very impressed by Lucid and their HYDRA Engine technology and the potential it holds for the future of scalable graphics.  Though the current implementation supports as many as four GPUs they say the technology can scale into the thousands and maintain the claimed linear scalability.  Obviously we are months away from seeing a product that we can actually test and beat on to gauge performance and reliability of their claims so any kind of final judgment is at least that far off.  For now I remain cautiously enthusiastic about what HYDRA could mean to graphics in 2009.

I want your feedback on this – stop in this thread of our forums to discuss!!

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