GPU, the new frontier of speed

PC makers are increasingly looking at graphic processing units (GPUs) to give computers from desktop PCs to supercomputers, an added performance boost.

Historically GPUs – think of the processors in video cards – were specifically designed for computer screen graphics. They were developed to process 3D and 2D graphics information and render those for display. But, as they became more powerful, they evolved to become programmable, parallel processors that could do a lot more than just render graphics.

Graphics processors are highly efficient at processing computer graphics which makes them better at processing complex algorithms than general purpose CPUs. And because of this superior number-crunching ability a growing number of PC makers and application developers are building in support for GPU processing. The idea is that heavy processing can be handed off to graphics processors, freeing up the CPU to do the more general tasks.

Supercomputers

At the high-end of computing GPUs are already widely used to enhance supercomputer performance. In the most recent Top500 report on the world’s biggest and fastest supercomputers, China made a dramatic play for the top spot with its GPU-equipped Nebulae supercomputers. Coming in at number 2, Nebulae owes much of its performance to the Nvidia Tesla C2050 GPUs that it combines with Intel X5650 processors.

But it’s not just supercomputers that are getting into the power of GPU processing. Desktop applications are heading that way as well. And among them is the ever-present desktop accessory, the browser. Microsoft is already building GPU acceleration into its future browser, Internet Explorer 9. That browser is still in development so is not yet ready for prime time but there are testing versions available.

Similarly Firefox has included GPU accelerated browsing in its development versions.

Adobe is another software maker using the power of GPU acceleration. The company has included GPU acceleration support for the Adobe Flash Player 10 since mid-2008. This was initially available to Windows users and was extended to Apple earlier this year. Ironically the support provides hardware acceleration for the H.264 video format, the very format Apple is touting as a replacement to Adobe’s Flash format.

The major advantage of putting graphics processors to work is that tasks that require heavy processing are handed off leaving the CPU to process more general tasks. This may be for image handling but can also be for other number-crunching.

The downside is that applications have to be programmed to take advantage of the power of the GPU. So not all applications and platforms are already benefiting from this. But over the next couple of years GPU performance enhancements will be a key part of future computing.

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GPU, the new frontier of speed