At the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas in January, NVIDIA announced Project Denver, a line of MPUs that will incorporate graphics processing units (GPU)—NVIDIA’s bread-and-butter product.
While Project Denver is comparable to GPU-integrated MPU offerings from PC microprocessor leaders Advanced Micro Devices Inc. and Intel Corp., NVIDIA’s chips will use the ARM architecture rather than the x86 technology most commonly employed in computers.
The NVIDIA announcement came at the same event where PC software giant Microsoft announced support for ARM microprocessors in the next version of its Windows PC operating system.
“NVIDIA’s entry into the microprocessor segment makes sense, despite the current market dominance of Intel and AMD,” said Matthew Wilkins, principal analyst for compute platforms at IHS. “In notebook PCs alone, IHS iSuppli research forecasts the penetration rate for graphics-enabled MPUs will increase to 82.9 percent by 2014, up from 39 percent in 2010. This presents an opening for NVIDIA to make inroads into the MPU market.”
A new supplier entering the MPU markets can act as a catalyst for innovation, benefiting end users. However, NVIDIA faces a challenge in the software realm. The PC market is dominated by the x86 microprocessor architecture, and software used on these computers is written for x86 hardware. NVIDIA’s challenge is to create products that interest independent software vendors (ISVs) to the extent that they port their existing PC applications or write new programs for ARM-based microprocessors.
However, one big ISV has already come on board—Microsoft. As part of its “Windows on ARM” announcement, the company also stated that its industry-leading personal productivity suite—Microsoft Office—will be available for ARM-based systems running the next version of Windows.
Developing an MPU that can be successful in the PC market requires more than just semiconductor engineering. Providing tools, libraries and support for ISVs, original design manufacturers (ODMs) and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) is critical to driving the penetration of a new platform. Doing this in a mature market dominated by a different instruction set architecture—such as the PC business with X86—is critical to its success.
IHS believes that during the short term, NVIDIA is likely to attain success with Project Denver in tablets and low-end notebooks, where price and an easy-to-use interface are key factors in attracting the attention of consumers.
The server market will present new challenges because the corporate information technology environment is decidedly conservative when it comes to selecting new hardware suppliers—especially for mission-critical applications. The server market’s transition from reduced instruction ser computing (RISC) MPUs to x86-based chips took many years.
However, as data centers grow in size because of increasing demand for cloud computing, power consumption is becoming an increasing concern. ARM MPUs, on the other hand, are renowned for being stingy on power. Because of this, IHS expects NVIDIA to focus extensively on the server segment with its Project Denver products.
But what of the incumbent suppliers to the PC and server markets, AMD and Intel?
For NVIDIA, the task of entering a new market and taking away market share as well as business from the incumbent suppliers will be daunting.
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