PCI-Express Compliance: Does It Even Matter?

For a while now we’ve been under the impression that video card size and power consumption was ultimately capped by the PCI-Express specification. At present time the specification and its addendums specify normal (75W), 150W, 225W, and 300W PCIe card operation. In the case of 300W cards in particular this is achieved through 75W from the PCIe slot, 75W from a 6pin PCIe power connector, and 150W from an 8pin PCIe power connector. As the name implies, the PCIe specification also defines what the 6pin and 8pin power connectors are supposed to be capable of, which is where 75W and 150W come from respectively.

Altogether the biggest, most powerful card configuration in the PCIe specification allows for a 12.283” long, triple-wide card that consumes 300W. To date we’ve never seen a card exceed the physical specifications, but we’ve seen several cards exceed the electrical specifications. This includes cards such as the 5970 and some overclocking-oriented 5870s that were designed to handle more than 300W when overclocked, and even more exotic cards such as the Asus ARES 5870X2 that simply drew more than 300W from the get-go. We have yet to see a reference design from AMD/NVIDIA however that exceeds any part of the PCIe specification by default.

So it has been clear for some time now that cards can exceed the PCIe specifications without incurring the immediately wrath of an army of lawyers, but at the same time this doesn’t establish what the benefits or losses are of being or not being PCIe compliant. To have a reference design exceed the PCIe specifications is certainly a new mark for the GPU industry, so we decided to get right to the bottom of the matter and get an answer to the following question: does PCI-Express compliance matter?

To answer this question we went to two parties. The first of which was of course AMD, whose product is in question. AMD’s answer basically amounts to a polite deflection: it’s an ultra-enthusiast card that at default settings does not exceed the power available by the combination of the PCIe slot and PCIe power connectors. Furthermore, as they correctly note, the 6990 is not the first card to ship at over 300W, as the ARES and other cards were drawing more than 300W a year ago. It’s a polite answer that glosses over the fact that no, the 6990 isn’t technically PCIe compliant.

To get a second opinion on the matter we went straight to the source: The Peripheral Component Interconnect Special Interest Group (PCI-SIG), which is the industry group that defines the PCIe standard and runs the workshops that test for product compliance. The PCI-SIG’s member list is virtually everyone in the computing industry, including AMD, NVIDIA, and Intel, so everyone has some level of representation with the group.

So what does the PCI-SIG think about cards such as the 6990 which exceed the PCIe specification? In a nutshell, they don’t directly care. The group’s working philosophy is closer to approving cards that work than it is about strictly enforcing standards, so their direct interest in the matter is limited. The holy grail of the PCI-SIG is the PCI Express Integrators List, which lists all the motherboards and add-on cards that have passed compliance testing. The principal purpose of the list is to help OEMs and system integrators choose hardware, relying on the list and by extension PCI-SIG testing to confirm that the product meets the PCIe standards, so that they can be sure it will work in their systems.

The Integrators List is more or less exclusively OEM focused, which means it has little significance for niche products such as the 6990 which is split between end-user installation and highly customized OEM builds. The 6990 does not need to be on the list to be sold to its target market. Similarly the 5970 was never submitted/approved for listing, and we wouldn’t expect the 6990 to be submitted either.

It is worth noting however that while the PCI-SIG does have power specifications, they’re not a principal concern of the group and they want to avoid doing anything that would limit product innovation. While the 300W specification was laid out under the belief that a further specification would not be necessary, the PCI-SIG does not even test for power specification compliance under their current compliance testing procedures.  Conceivably the 6990 could be submitted and could pass the test, leading to it being labeled PCIe compliant. Of course it’s equally conceivable that the PCI-SIG could start doing power compliance testing if it became an issue…

At the end of the day as the PCI-SIG is a pro-compliance organization as opposed to being a standard-enforcement organization, there’s little to lose for AMD or their partners by not being compliant with the PCIe power specifications. By not having passed compliance testing the only “penalty” for AMD is that they cannot claim the 6990 is PCIe compliant; funny enough they can even use the PCIe logo (we’ve already seen a Sapphire 6990 box with it). So does PCIe compliance matter? For mainstream products PCIe compliance matters for the purposes of getting OEM sales; for everything else including niche products like the 6990, PCIe compliance does not matter.

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  • nafhan - Tuesday, March 08, 2011 - link

    I generally buy cards in the $100-$200 range. Power usage has gone up a bit while performance has increased exponentially over the last 10 years. Reply
  • LtGoonRush - Tuesday, March 08, 2011 - link

    I'm disappointed at the choices AMD made with the cooler. The noise levels are truly intolerable, it seems like it would have made more sense to go with a triple-slot card that would be more capable of handling the heat without painful levels of noise. It'll be interesting to see how the aftermarket cooler vendors like Arctic Cooling and Thermalright handle this. Reply
  • Ryan Smith - Tuesday, March 08, 2011 - link

    There's actually a good reason for that. I don't believe I mentioned this in the article, but AMD is STRONGLY suggesting not to put a card next to the 6990. It moves so much air that another card blocking its airflow would run the significant risk of killing it.

    What does this have to do with triple-slot coolers? By leaving a space open, it's already taking up 3 spaces. If the cooler itself takes up 3 spaces, those 3 spaces + 1 open space is now 4 spaces. You'd be hard pressed to find a suitable ATX board and case that could house a pair of these cards in Crossfire if you needed 8 open spaces. Triple slot coolers are effectively the kryptonite for SLI/CF, which is why NVIDIA isn't in favor of them either (but that's a story for another time).
    Reply
  • arkcom - Tuesday, March 08, 2011 - link

    2.5 slot cooler. That would guarantee at least half a slot is left for airspace. Reply
  • Quidam67 - Tuesday, March 08, 2011 - link

    if it means a quieter card then that might have been a compromise worth making. Also, 2.5 would stop people from making the il-advised choice of using the slot next to the card, thus possibly killing it! Reply
  • strikeback03 - Tuesday, March 08, 2011 - link

    With the height of a triple slot card maybe they could mount the fan on an angle to prevent blocking it off. Reply
  • kilkennycat - Tuesday, March 08, 2011 - link

    Triple-slot coolers... no need!!

    However, if one is even contemplating Crossfire or SLI then a triple-slot space between the PCIe X16 SOCKETS for a pair of high-power 2-slot-cooler graphics cards with "open-fan" cooling (like the 6990) is recommended to avoid one card being fried by lack of air. This socket-spacing allows a one-slot clear air-space for the "rear" card's intake fan to "breathe". (Obviously, one must not plug any other card into any motherboard socket present in this slot)

    In the case of a pair of 6990 (or a pair of nVidia's upcoming dual-GPU card), a minimum one-slot air-space between cards becomes MANDATORY, unless custom water or cryo cooling is installed.

    Very few current Crossfire/SLI-compatible motherboards have triple-slot (or more) spaces between the two PCIe X16 connectors while simultaneously also having genuine X16 data-paths to both connectors. That socket spacing is becoming more common with high-end Sandy-Bridge motherboards, but functionality may still may be constrained by X8 PCIe data-paths at the primary pair of X16 connectors.

    To even attempt to satisfy the data demands of a pair of 6990 Cross-Fire with a SINGLE physical CPU, you really do need a X58 motherboard and a Gulftown Corei7 990x processor, or maybe a Corei7 970 heavily overclocked. For X58 motherboards with triple-spaced PCIe sockets properly suitable for Crossfire or SLI , you need to look at the Asrock X58 "Extreme" series of motherboards. These do indeed allow full X16 data-paths to the two primary PCIe X16 "triple-spaced" sockets.

    Many ATX motherboards have a third "so-called" PCIe X16 socket in the "slot7" position. However, this slot is always incapable of a genuine X16 pairing with either of the other two "X16" sockets, Anyway this "slot 7" location will not allow any more than a two-slot wide card when the motherboard is installed in a PC "tower" -- an open-fan graphics card will have no proper ventilation here, as it comes right up against either the power-supply (if bottom-loaded) or the bottom-plate of the case.
    Reply
  • Spazweasel - Tuesday, March 08, 2011 - link

    Exactly. For people who are going to do quad-Crossfire with these, you pretty much have to add the cost of a liquid cooling system to the price of the cards, and it's going to have to be a pretty studly liquid cooler too. Of course, the kind of person who "needs" (funny, using that word!) two of these is also probably the kind of person who would do the work to implement a liquid cooling system, so that may be less of an issue than it otherwise might be.

    So, here's the question (more rhetorical than anything else). For a given ultra-high-end gaming goal, say, Crysis @ max settings, 60fps @ 3x 2500x1600 monitors (something that would require quad Crossfire 69xx or 3-way SLI 580), with a targeted max temperature and noise level... which is the cheaper solution by the time you take into account cooling, case, high-end motherboard, the cards themselves? That's the cost-comparison that needs to be made, not just the cost of the cards themselves.
    Reply
  • tzhu07 - Tuesday, March 08, 2011 - link

    Before anyone thinks of buying this card stock, you should really go out and get a sense of what that kind of noise level is like. Unless you have a pair of high quality expensive noise-cancelling earbuds and you're playing games at a loud volume, you're going to constantly hear the fan.

    $700 isn't the real price. Add on some aftermarket cooling and that's how much you're going to spend.

    Don't wake the neighbors...
    Reply
  • Spivonious - Tuesday, March 08, 2011 - link

    70dB is the maximum volume before risk of hearing loss, according to the EPA. http://www.epa.gov/history/topics/noise/01.htm

    Seriously, AMD, it's time to look at getting more performance per Watt.
    Reply

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