Earlier today NVIDIA announced that it would begin licensing its Kepler GPU architecture to 3rd parties. This is a sensible next step for NVIDIA, but an unprecedented one among the two remaining discrete PC GPU suppliers.

Note that what NVIDIA is announcing today is contrary to AMD’s semi-custom approach to SoC production. AMD is offering to build (semi) custom tailored silicon to customer needs, while NVIDIA is taking a more ARM-like approach and offering its GPU IP to 3rd parties for integration on their own. In other words, NVIDIA is looking to compete with ARM and Imagination Technologies rather than AMD or Qualcomm.

In addition to its GPU architecture, NVIDIA is now also open to licensing its visual computing patents to 3rd parties. The visual computing patent portfolio includes all of NVIDIA’s 5500 patents in the area, as well as CUDA.

NVIDIA views its IP licensing business as additive rather than in lieu of its current GPU and SoC businesses. Time will tell whether or not this ends up being the case, but it’s quite obvious that at NVIDIA’s current size it wouldn’t be able to go after all GPU markets on its own - enabling others to do so makes a lot of sense from that perspective.

It Doesn’t End with Kepler: Future NVIDIA GPUs to Be Licensed

I asked NVIDIA about future GPU architectures beyond Kepler, and the answer was pretty awesome: future GPU architectures will be available to licensees at the time of tape out by NVIDIA. Licensees can choose whether or not to adopt an architecture right away or wait for any potential revisions, similar to what ARM does with its cores (e.g. Tegra 4i uses a later revision of the Cortex A9 core). This move has huge implications. Theoretically a licensee could bring an NVIDIA GPU to market before NVIDIA itself, although that does seem pretty unlikely. What we could see however is a licensee introduce a GPU configuration that NVIDIA had no intentions of bringing to market.

The model makes a lot of sense and expands NVIDIA’s role in the computing world beyond its life in PCs. In the PC space, NVIDIA built discrete GPUs that system integrators (and end users) put in their machines. In the post-discrete world where SoCs rule the landscape, NVIDIA believes it can be just as relevant by doing the same. The difference here is instead of NVIDIA building cards out of its GPUs and selling them, the SoC manufacturer would be responsible for all integration. It’s the same playbook, just modified to deal with the new world around it.

Targets for Integration

NVIDIA is quick to point out that Kepler is its first mobile to high-end GPU architecture. Capable of scaling from smartphones (Logan/Tegra 5 next year) to supercomputers (Titan), Kepler is inherently very flexible and makes a lot of sense as NVIDIA’s first target for its IP licensing program.

Although mobile is an obvious fit for Kepler licensing, NVIDIA hopes its GPUs will be used in new markets as well. NVIDIA’s refrain sounds quite similar to AMD’s. Neither knows where the next big market will be, but both want to be prepared for it when the time comes. It won’t be too long before smartphones and tablets reach their own Ultrabook moments when performance becomes good enough for the majority of the market and attention shifts elsewhere. When that happens, NVIDIA (and AMD, and others) believe that opportunities for continued growth will appear in new markets (e.g. TVs, wearables, other connected compute devices).

The Compute Connection

Although it’s clear that the greatest point of interest with today’s announcement revolves around getting NVIDIA’s GPU designs and graphics IP into new products, at a high level perspective NVIDIA has made it clear they’re licensing their visual computing technology, and that this isn’t just a play for graphics. As part of keeping themselves open to new markets, NVIDIA has told us that they’re essentially willing to do whatever makes financial sense as far as licensing goes, with both compute and graphics on the table. So at the same time as licensing out their graphics technology, NVIDIA has also opened the door to licensing out CUDA and their other GPU compute innovations if the price is right.

This can lead to several possibilities, ultimately relying on who’s interested and what market they represent. At a most basic level, licensing an NVIDIA GPU will get the buyer CUDA – binary compatibility and all – thanks to the fact that this would be the same hardware CUDA already runs on. However in the new “anything is possible” licensing system of NVIDIA, CUDA could also be licensed out separately. Device makers who simply want to add CUDA support to their devices, either to take advantage of some of the runtime’s unique functionality or merely to enable easier porting from existing NVIDIA systems, can now license the necessary CUDA IP from NVIDIA. The GPU computing market is still very young with a number of competing technologies, but thus far based on actual usage CUDA has proven to be a front runner compared to more widely supported (and open) environments such as OpenCL, so while NVIDIA is still trying to bring further users onto CUDA, they also have a CUDA user base they can leverage today.

The most obvious avenue for any potential CUDA licensing would be HPC users looking for greater integration beyond today’s CPU + GPU setups we see in systems like Titan. However NVIDIA is also pursuing this with forthcoming SoCs like Logan and further products integrating their Denver CPU, so it’s not a market that’s being ignored by NVIDIA. On the other hand more novel uses of GPU compute in the embedded space, encompassing everything from TVs to automotive to traditional appliances, are areas that have been identified as potential growth avenues for GPU computing by NVIDIA and other GPU firms in the past, not all of which NVIDIA is directly serving right now. In all of these cases licensing can focus on CUDA, or even more broadly just licensing specific NVIDIA compute technologies that would be useful to include in these products; even obscure technologies like Kepler’s low-overhead soft-ECC implementation could potentially be of value as a licensed technology.

NVIDIA Can Now Go After Apple & Samsung Business

The cynic in all of us can point to NVIDIA’s struggles with getting Tegra 4 into devices and out the door as motivation behind wanting to license its GPU IP. Beating Qualcomm has proven to be very difficult. Even Intel has had a wonderfully difficult time of making its way into the mobile space. So is that what this licensing play is all about? To an extent, perhaps.

Had Tegra 4 been out and available, I think it’s safe to say that the SoC would likely have been used in at least some previous Tegra 3 design wins. Tegra 4i will hope to do the same for smartphones. I see no reason for these businesses to stop, but I think it’s quite obvious that there’s a huge gap between where the Tegra business is today and where Qualcomm is.

By licensing its GPU IP, NVIDIA opens itself up to additional customers (and revenue) that otherwise wouldn’t have considered it. I doubt Apple would ever use an off-the-shelf Tegra SoC, but NVIDIA can now compete for Apple SoC business alongside Imagination Technologies. Should Apple decide to one day drop Intel altogether and bring all of its CPU design in house, it now has a GPU vendor it can license cores or technologies from - just like it does with ARM. The exact same goes for Samsung.

Both Apple and Samsung have histories of licensing GPU IP from Imagination. NVIDIA now has a chance of going after that business.

The same could be said at the other end of the spectrum. The mobile SoC wars we saw unfold over the past few years are about to heat up in the server market. Where integration of high performance GPU architectures makes sense in servers, NVIDIA now has an offering to those that are interested.

GPUs Today, LTE Tomorrow?

NVIDIA isn’t officially announcing plans to license its Icera modem IP, but I’m told that’s the next logical step. NVIDIA is investing handsomely in Tegra 4i and its modem architectures, but similar to its GPU business - in order to address a much larger market, it will have to consider licensing that IP.

Final Words

Although unexpected from a timing perspective (we had no hint that NVIDIA was going to drop this on us today), NVIDIA’s move to license its GPU IP is very sensible. All growth markets where compute is concerned are moving forward with high levels of integration. For NVIDIA to not only remain relevant in the broader world but also grow with it, it must have a strategy in place for markets where integration is required.

Where those new markets are, and ultimately what this means for NVIDIA’s financials is beyond the scope of our analysis - it’s simply the right (only?) move.

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  • Wolfpup - Wednesday, June 19, 2013 - link

    I wonder about that...it makes little sense to me that Apple would make their own GPUs when they can already choose ARM or PowerVR...and now Nvidia. My guess is the engineers they hired are just to deal with integrated existing tech into their chips, not reinvent the wheel.

    Who knows though...they did develop their own core. Though there two I wonder if there will be a Swift 2. The only point to Swift (and Krait) seems to be that ARM left a gap between A9 and A15, which they've since filled with A12 anyway. Swift and Krait might fit in that gap (though I suspect they're closer to A9 than A15) but the next logical jump is A15.
    Reply
  • iwod - Wednesday, June 19, 2013 - link

    Apple isn't designing their own GPU, those Design Team are for Optimizing and Tuning the PowerVR arch or what ever GPU IP they decided to use. Design a GPU from Ground up is hard, and it takes lots of time.

    The reason why Nvidia fits Apple is just like you mention, vertical integration. Apple could have one GPU tech across Mac and iOS. The cost of writing GPU drivers is increasing and since Apple are developing the drivers themselves it make sense for them to do away with less variation on GPU.
    Reply
  • Krysto - Tuesday, June 25, 2013 - link

    Which probably means Apple is preparing OS XI for ARM. Reply
  • Bobs_Your_Uncle - Wednesday, June 19, 2013 - link

    "But I was wondering, the article has multiple mentions of "very sensible". To me this implies this has been known (to them) or they would have guessed they are going to doing it. But then they say something about they didn't known this was coming.
    Wouldn't "makes sense", "sensible direction", "logical step" be a better word to use? Just Wondering."

    Your suggested alternate phrases ("makes sense, sensible direction, logical step") are perfectly fine usages for the application you suggest. I suspect from your question, however, that your understanding of the phrase "very sensible", in this particular usage, may invest or credit the author with either more (insider) knowledge than has been established, or perhaps more foresight/prescience than may be warranted.

    You are/it is correct in your use of "very sensible" when a particular decision or course of action is being discussed, & the benefits of that same decision/action could be predicted, or even has been suggested by others in advance of the event. In this use case "very sensible" is a way of saying that, "Given the known variables of a, b, & c, & present market conditions, it is obviously "very sensible" for X to do Y."

    As the author has used "very sensible" in this article/post, he is discussing a course of action taken by Nvidia that he (Anand) had no advance knowledge of, nor had he any real cause to suspect that Nvidia was going to embark upon this path. In this use case, that decision/action is being reviewed in retrospect. In this use case, it's the same as saying, "Though I never had reason to consider the prospect of such a thing happening, now that the decision is made & the reasoning h as been scrutinized, it is clearly a "very sensible!"path to follow."

    Your inference of advance knowledge is not necessarily incorrect, but neither can it be assumed.
    Reply
  • milli - Wednesday, June 19, 2013 - link

    "there are only 3 GPU IP Vendor, ARM, Nvidia and IMG"

    Next to ARM, ImgTech and now nVidia, there's also Vivante & DMP.
    Reply
  • HisDivineOrder - Wednesday, June 19, 2013 - link

    Wouldn't it be crazy if AMD decided it was cheaper/the better option to license nVidia GPU tech than continue their own? Heads would explode all over the internet, forums would burn down from all the flames, and chaos would ensue.

    I'm curious to see where this goes. I think it's a smart move to do ahead of any major slam from Tegra failures this year and it gives them some cushioning in case the market moves in a direction they don't anticipate.

    I'd love to see Intel license and use nVidia cores instead of their own IGP, but it would be years before such a product would come to fruition. I wonder how the driver scenario would wind up with a product like that. Intel has been known to license third party GPU's before.
    Reply
  • iwod - Wednesday, June 19, 2013 - link

    or may be AMD decide to also license out their GPU IP as well? Using AMD GPU IP could have games easier to port from PS4/XboxOne to your Mobile Phone. Surely this is a much easier sell then Nvidia? Reply
  • HisDivineOrder - Wednesday, June 19, 2013 - link

    As far as I know, AMD is already halfway there with HSA and offering to bundle their GPU tech with other CPU tech like x86 or ARM in custom configs. Reply
  • Wolfpup - Wednesday, June 19, 2013 - link

    I suppose this is smart? Not sure what the implications are for Tegra and their discrete GPUs...

    Also I wonder had they done this earlier, would they have been used in the two next gen consoles? Not sure how much that's worth to AMD though as I assume the deals are pretty good for Sony/Microsoft.
    Reply
  • Krysto - Tuesday, June 25, 2013 - link

    Nvidia will focus on custom CPU's for Tegra in the future, starting with Denver, just like Apple. Reply

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