Nvidia GRID server promises speedy cloud-based gaming

Nvidia promises fast streaming streaming of games and other 3D content with its GPU-packed, virtualization-powered servers.

We game on phones, we game on consoles, we game on networks, but cloud-based gaming has been hobbled by performance issues. Today at CES, Nvidia announced the GRID cloud gaming platform, a server system that aims to solve the power, speed, and scalability problems that have thwarted cloud-based gaming.

We've been here before. The idea of rendering games on a cloud-based server, and shipping the rendered pixels to distant users who play the games, ultimately built and nearly destroyed cloud-gaming service OnLive. OnLive's key problem was that it needed one graphics card per user, an infrastructure that was unsustainable.

Nvidia's GRID aims to solve that problem. The specs for a single GRID box, roughly the size of a typical 4U server chassis, are staggering: 24 GPUs using Nvidia's Kepler architecture. These are not commodity GPUs used in off-the-shelf graphics cards, but ones developed specifically for the GRID.

The problem Nvidia is trying to solve is: How do gaming providers deliver a robust gaming experience from the cloud affordably? The solution isn't just hardware. Having 24 GPUs in a chassis is great, but without the right software stack, it's just brute force. Nvidia's Kepler GPU offers one piece of the puzzle: It has circuitry supporting hardware virtualization. Nvidia's VGX Hypervisor software acts as a virtual machine for both CPU and GPUs, allocating virtual GPUs from the physical GPUs. Load-balancing algorithms let VGX Hypervisor allocate parts of a physical GPU or CPU, so one graphics chip can support several users, depending on the overall performance that needs to be delivered.

Huang noted that the stack of 20 GRID servers is equivalent to 700 Xbox 360s, but it consumes one-fifth the power. Huang also said that GRID is Nvidia's first complete system product, which puts them in direct competition with HP and Dell, who are also offering graphics servers based on Nvidia technology. Nvidia demonstrated the PC game Trine 2 running on an LG Smart TV, which had been hacked to implement the GRID client software needed to receive the piped pixels from the server.

NvidiaGRID promises speedy, scalable cloud-based gaming.

Nvidia plans on selling GRIDs to anyone who wants to render and server up real-time 3D content from the cloud. Initial customers include US-base Agawi, G-cluster (in Japan), an Israeli company, PlayCast, ubitus (Korea), and China-based companies CyberCloud and CloudUnion.

Nvidia's built it; will gamers come?

It's a mesmerizing idea: let PC games run in the cloud, so they can be played on any hardware, even smart TVs. Users won't have to hassle with graphics settings, plus they'll get a reliably good gaming experience, and content can't be pirated. Everyone wins. But OnLive's real problem was that it didn't attract a significant customer base. It's possible that more casual gamers may flock to these cloud-based services as the clients are built into more HDTV and set-top boxes. On the other hand, even if cloud gaming services don't take off, Nvidia's gained valuable experience building and delivering systems in high volume, suggesting another growth path for the world's largest maker of graphics chips.

For more blogs, stories, photos, and video from the nation's largest consumer electronics show, check out our complete coverage of CES 2013.

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