Original Link: http://www.anandtech.com/show/1980



Over the course of the past few months, NVIDIA has been developing a comprehensive desktop stable image platform that addresses the stability, reliability, and total cost of ownership requirements within the small-medium sized business, educational, and government markets. NVIDIA will be publicly launching their new Business Platform initiative next week and is determined to pursue these markets aggressively in North America and Europe. These various market segments represent about 20 million unit sales annually with Intel being the dominant player within this stable image platform market.

On a much too frequent basis, IT departments have to re-qualify hardware configurations and then update software images because of constant hardware/software changes within the marketplace. This lack of platform configuration stability forces additional testing, increases network complexity and manageability, creates additional training, and slows the implementation process of new PCs throughout the organization. This leads to increased product transition, support, image, and network management costs along with additional administrative expenses. One of the most cost-effective ways to control and reduce these costs is by migrating to a stable image platform.

What is a stable image platform? A stable image platform is essentially a standardized hardware and software solution that balances system performance and productivity against the need for greatly reduced administrative and support costs. A stable image program is generally based on a yearly cadence that includes a 3-month platform evaluation period, 12-month production cycle, and a 24-month support schedule.

The main advantage of this platform is in the design, qualification, and availability of a hardware and driver configuration that can be procured and deployed over a set 12-month cycle. This standardized hardware and driver configuration allows the IT group to design and deploy a software image that can be utilized throughout the 12-month production cycle without worry of compatibility issues between the hardware and software configurations.

Why is a stable image platform important? The ability to reduce and control the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) for an organization's PC population over its life cycle is critical in today's IT department. Instability of the platform, lack of security, stability of supply, or varying hardware and software configurations can impose a tremendous cost and manageability burden within the IT department.

Although research numbers vary, it is generally assumed that only 20% to 30% of a PC's cost of ownership is attributed to the actual procurement and disposal of the platform. The remaining 70% to 80% of a PC's cost of ownership is attributed to the management of the platform over its life-cycle. These management costs are attributed to operational aspects such as training and energy, but the majority of costs are associated with the administration and management support of hardware/software upgrades across the network. Research has shown that by implementing a stable image platform program, it can reduce the life-cycle cost of a typical PC platform anywhere from 10% to 55% over a three-year period.

What are the benefits of a stable image platform? In an era where networked PCs have become a standard fixture in the majority of businesses, educational institutions, and governmental offices, the need to standardize and easily manage these platforms has increased exponentially over the past few years. The cost benefits of having a standardized platform program are significant for a typical organization at this time and are realized through a reduction of platform configurations, testing and qualification times, and simplification of PC management.

Since networks have become so prevalent within these market sectors, the ability to properly manage, maintain, and upgrade these systems is extremely important. When utilizing a stable image platform across the network, it greatly simplifies the ability of the system administrator to manage these assets from a centralized or even remote location. This leads to a reduction in administrative costs and the ability to quickly roll out minor patches, software application updates, or even new images without worrying about the hardware configuration. The result is a network of standardized PCs that are easily managed, stable, secure, and upgradeable for less cost than platforms consisting of multiple hardware and software configurations.

Other benefits include the ability to quickly roll out additional platforms if the user base increases or for replacement of older platforms. The purchase and storage of replacement platforms or components is greatly reduced based upon a common and stable hardware platform. The ability to upscale the base system by upgrading the CPU, memory, or installing a certified discreet graphics card for users requiring additional capabilities, yet retaining the same base platform and driver set, is an additional benefit.

Now, let's take a closer look at the features that the NVIDIA Business Platform offers and a comparative look at Intel's current and future offerings.



NVIDIA Business Platform Features

HP, Dell, Gateway, and the majority of tier-one OEMs have been offering various forms of stable image platforms through their business, education, or government solutions groups in recent years. As the complexity and size of enterprise level networks grew, along with the proliferation of networks in other sectors, it became apparent that a different level of integration between hardware and software was required. So, in mid-2003, Intel formally stepped into this market segment with their Stable Image Platform Program (SIPP), and following Intel's tremendous success, AMD introduced their Commercial Stable Image Platform (CSIP) in September of 2005.

The NVIDIA Business Platform being launched next week is designed and built around the company's graphics chipset and media/communications processors while utilizing an approved AMD Athlon 64 processor based upon the AMD CISP specifications. This desktop-only platform design provides additional value to the AMD CSIP program by instituting a stable image program, comprehensive certification program of the Original Design Manufacturer (ODM) and System Builder, along with partnerships with leading software providers. By certifying systems, components, and software down to the motherboard and chip level, NVIDIA is promising to have superior hardware performance and software quality out-of-the-box when compared to Intel's current desktop SIPP offerings. Additional specifications about the NVIDIA Business Platform can be viewed here.

Highlights of the program include the NVIDIA Stable Image Platform design that defines the software foundation of the NVIDIA Business Platform. It combines drivers for graphics, audio, networking, storage, and other media & communication processor functionality into a single binary image. NSIP guarantees a single binary image deployment across all platforms, regardless of integrated or discrete graphic configurations. This differs from Intel's image certification which is for integrated graphics only at this time.

Also, NVIDIA offers the only hardware-based firewall solution for a stable image platform, with NVIDIA stating their unique anti-hacking technology will secure each PC from network intrusion. We have not tested this claim and are awaiting a test system to verfiy this feature. Hardware-based firewall technology protects PCs at the network layer from most virus, worm, and spyware attacks. Unlike software-based firewall solutions, ActiveArmor cannot be disabled by malicious code according to NVIDIA. NVIDIA worked closely with Microsoft and Altiris to ensure their new ActiveArmor Firewall allows remote management traffic while still protecting against malware. Wake-on-LAN, PXE, and Firewall filtering is built into the network interface hardware to enable full remote management of the PC provided a network connection and power source is available.

Like competitive offerings, the NVIDIA Business Platform offers a stable technology platform that is released on a yearly cadence with at least one year of production availability. This program includes a 3-month evaluation period along with a 24-month support period after the production cycle. The support is provided by the certified system builder of the platform.



AMD Commercial Stable Image Platform

The NVIDIA Business Platform is synchronized with AMD's Commercial Stable Image Platform (CSIP) microprocessor cadence. The AMD CSIP cycle starts on or around September 1st of each year with the first three months being the qualification period, followed by a 12-month production cycle. In contrast, the Intel SIPP 3-month qualification process starts on or around June 1st of each year for the desktop product and on or around January 1st of each year for the Notebook product platform.

At this time, NVIDIA has enlisted MSI, Asus, Gigabyte, and FoxConn as their certified Original Design Manufacturers. NVIDIA had partnered with these manufacturers to specify motherboard design, approved hardware components, approved peripherals, and required software interfaces. To receive NVIDIA Business Platform certification, the motherboard manufacturers must pass an extensive certification test suite conducted by NVIDIA that validates all on-board component performance.

NVIDIA and its partners are targeting the small-medium sized business, educational, and government desktop markets in North America and Europe at this time. This solution should also scale well into the enterprise market, although this is not a main objective at present. The NVIDIA Business Platform differs from the Intel SIPP by not being available to the Tier-1 suppliers, it does not offer a stable image platform for Notebooks, and is not worldwide in scope. Instead, NVIDIA is concentrating their marketing efforts on desktop platforms by enlisting the Tier-2+ suppliers and will be the only certified stable image PC solution offered through the system builder and value-added reseller channel. NVIDIA is betting this strategy will enable the Tier-2+ system builders and the value-added resellers to compete directly in both price and performance with the Tier-1 suppliers that already have the engineering and marketing capability to design, manufacture, and fully support their stable image platforms.

System builders are required to run a comprehensive compliance test suite on an NVIDIA Business Platform system to verify the use of appropriate motherboard and motherboard components, NVIDIA GPUs and MCPs, NVIDIA Stable Image software, AMD CSIP Processor, and peripherals. System builders then submit results of the compliance test for certification to NVIDIA who will audit all results. If test results are within acceptable levels, the system builder receives an NVIDIA Business Platform certification and can commence offering certified systems for sale.



Basic Features: NVIDIA and Intel Stable Image Platforms

Specification NVIDIA Business Platform Performance - 2006 Intel Professional Business Platform 2005
CPU Interface 939-Pin based Athlon 64 or Athlon64 X2 series Processor Range listed in AMD CISP LGA775-based Pentium 4 600 series Processor Range listed in Intel SIPP
Chipset NVIDIA GeForce 6200 GPU
NVIDIA 430MCP
Intel 945GM (Intel 950GMA Graphics) - Northbridge
Intel ICH7 - Southbridge
Expansion Slots (1) x PCI-E x16
(2) x PCI-E x1
(4) x PCI 2.3
(1) x PCI-E x16
(1) x PCI-E x1
(3) x PCI 2.3
(Typical Configuration)
Onboard USB 2.0 (8) USB2.0 ports (6) USB2.0 ports
Onboard LAN NVIDIA Gigabit Ethernet LAN Intel PRO/1000 PM Ethernet LAN (Typical Option)
Onboard Audio High Definition Audio Codec High Definition Audio Codec
Back Panel I/O Ports 1 x PS/2 Keyboard
1 x PS/2 Mouse
1 x Parallel
1 x Audio I/O
1 x RJ45
4 x USB 2.0
1 x VGA
1 x DVI
1 x TV Out
1 x PS/2 Keyboard
1 x PS/2 Mouse
1 x Parallel
1 x Audio I/O
1 x RJ45
4 x USB 2.0
1 x VGA
1 x DVI
Other Features NVIDIA ActiveArmor Firewall
NVIDIA MediaShield Storage
Trusted Platform Module 1.2 - Optional
ATX Form Factor
Intel AMT - enables IT staff to diagnose, repair, and manage remote PCs regardless of OS or system state. Remote systems require a network connection and power source.
Trusted Platform Module 1.2 - Optional
ATX Form Factor

Listed above are the basic system configurations for the Professional Level stable image platforms and both offer expandability for discrete graphics solutions. Although these systems would certainly not be considered acceptable for an enthusiast or workstation user, they certainly offer very good performance for general business applications. NVIDIA currently holds an advantage in both overall system performance and thermals due to the AMD Athlon 64 and Athlon 64 X2 processor choices. NVIDIA's 6200 GPU unit also offers better video performance than the Intel 950GMA graphics solution. NVIDIA's integrated or discreet graphics options are fully certified and supported by their single binary driver image. In addition, NVIDIA Business Platform motherboards offer the capability to drive two displays without requiring a separate card. This is important as more and more businesses are relying on multiple monitors to increase productivity.

Specification NVIDIA Business Platform Standard - 2006 Intel Fundamental Business Platform 2005
CPU Interface 939-Pin based Athlon 64 or Athlon64 X2 series Processor Range listed in AMD CISP LGA775-based Pentium 4 531 series Processor listed in Intel SIPP (Processor Options dependent upon supplier)
Chipset NVIDIA GeForce 6150 GPU
NVIDIA 430MCP
Intel 945GM (Intel 950GMA Graphics) - Northbridge
Intel ICH7 - Southbridge
Expansion Slots (1) x PCI-E x16
(1) x PCI-E x1
(2) x PCI 2.3
(1) x PCI-E x1
(2) x PCI 2.3
(Typical Configuration)
Onboard USB 2.0 (8) USB2.0 ports (6) USB2.0 ports
Onboard LAN NVIDIA Gigabit Ethernet LAN Intel PRO/1000 PM Ethernet LAN (Typical Option)
Onboard Audio High Definition Audio Codec High Definition Audio Codec
Back Panel I/O Ports 1 x PS/2 Keyboard
1 x PS/2 Mouse
1 x Parallel
1 x Audio I/O
1 x RJ45
4 x USB 2.0
1 x VGA
1 x DVI
1 x PS/2 Keyboard
1 x PS/2 Mouse
1 x Parallel
1 x Audio I/O
1 x RJ45
4 x USB 2.0
1 x VGA
1 x DVI
Other Features NVIDIA ActiveArmor Firewall
NVIDIA MediaShield Storage
Trusted Platform Module 1.2 - Optional
M-ATX Form Factor
Trusted Platform Module 1.2 - Optional
M-ATX or ATX Form Factor

Listed above are the basic system configurations for the Entry Level stable image platforms with NVIDIA still offering expandability for a discrete graphics option. The main difference in the platform designs compared to the Professional Level systems is a reduction in the available PCI Express and PCI slots along with a change to a small form factor board. NVIDIA also holds an even greater advantage at this level in overall system performance due to the full availability of the AMD Athlon 64 and Athlon 64 X2 processor choices compared to the Intel specified 531 P4. NVIDIA's 6150 GPU unit also offers better video performance than the Intel 950GMA graphics solution.



Intel's 2006 Desktop Platform

Intel certainly took notice of NVIDA and AMD's stable image platform initiatives and has several exciting technologies in store for their 2006 desktop Stable Image Platform Program.

After discussions with Intel's Frank Soqui, Director of Platform Market Development, and Scott Smith, Press Relations, we have confirmed the upcoming "Conroe" series of processors along with the new "Broadwater" (965) Northbridge, ICH8 Southbridge, and " NINEVEH" network interface will be an integral part of the Intel Professional Business Platform for 2006. Although the exact board level specifics of the Professional Business Platform 2006 have not been finalized, the choice of Conroe and Broadwater is definite at this time. The Fundamental Business Platform for 2006 feature list has not been revealed, but should be available within the next 45 days.

Specification Intel Professional Business Platform 2006
CPU Interface LGA775-based "Conroe" Series Processor
Chipset Intel "Broadwater" 965x - Northbridge
Intel ICH8 - Southbridge
Expansion Slots (1) x PCI-E x16
(2) x PCI-E x1
(3) x PCI 2.3
(Proposed)
Onboard USB 2.0 (8) USB2.0 ports
Onboard LAN Intel "NINEVEH" Network Interface
Onboard Audio High Definition Audio Codec
Other Features Intel AMT - enables IT staff to diagnose, repair, and manage remote PCs regardless of OS or system state. Remote systems require a network connection and power source.
Trusted Platform Module 1.2
VT Enabled
ATX Form Factor

Along with the introduction of Conroe/Broadwater and the resulting increase in the overall performance of the platform, Intel will be concentrating on enhancing the network communications' ability of this platform. In addition to improved communications security and ability with the new " NINEVEH" network interface, Intel's Active Management Technology is receiving an upgrade.

Intel's Active Management Technology allows the IT organization to discover, heal, and protect their networked assets even better. Intel AMT stores hardware and software information in non-volatile memory and with built-in manageability; it allows IT to discover assets even while PCs are powered off. This built-in manageability provides out-of-band management capabilities to allow IT to remotely heal systems after OS failures.

The main change for 2006 is the addition of a Circuit Breaker capability that assists in protecting the network from source-level threats by proactively blocking these threats and then reactively containing infected clients before they impact the network. Intel AMT will also alert IT when critical software agents are removed and makes it easier to keep software and virus protection consistent and up-to-date across the enterprise. Third-party software can store version numbers or policy data in non-volatile memory for off-hours retrieval or updates.

Something else worth noting is that the 2006 business platform will include support for Virtualization Technology (VT). The specifics of how VT relates to the above Circuit Breaker technology - if it plays a role at all - are not yet clear, but previous demonstrations of VT indicate that it at least can be used to help with threat isolation and system management.

Intel will also be moving to a single certified driver stack that covers the chipset, CPU, graphics, network, and communication devices similar to what NVIDIA currently offers. In addition, Intel offers a stable image platform for Notebooks with a new 2006 platform featuring the Core Duo Processor series that was launched this past January. Additional specifications about the Intel SIPP program can be viewed here.



Final Words

NVIDIA has spent a considerable amount of time designing, marketing, and implementing a stable image platform solution. Their strategy is unique and we believe that it fits well with their decision to target the small-medium sized business segment along with educational and government sectors in North America and Europe. Although their platform design and software partnerships would scale well in an enterprise level network, NVIDIA is not directly targeting this market yet.

We see one issue with this strategy currently and it is a lack of a stable image platform for the Notebook product group. Considering the penetration of notebooks into NVIDIA's target market at this time, we find the lack of a stable image product to be a handicap for NVIDIA's partners. We fully expect NVIDIA to launch a stable image notebook platform in the near future.

NVIDIA's success and experience in the workstation market from both a platform and graphics vantage point affords them credibility in these particular market segments. Their stable image platform partnership with AMD allows them access to the top performing processor lineup at this time along with excellent thermal and performance per watt capabilities.

We expect NVIDIA's pricing structure to be extremely competitive and with excellent performance capabilities, they should attract considerable attention during an IT organization's procurement cycle. Although their solution is well designed, we believe that it will be a difficult path to success in the US market at this time while they should enjoy immediate success in Europe.

Unlike Europe, the US market is more entrenched in staying with the same platform over a longer period of time while procuring those platforms from a select few Tier-1 suppliers. Although NVIDIA has considerable marketing clout and exposure with their graphics and workstation capabilities in the US corporate, educational, and government sector, we believe that most IT managers will be hesitant to switch platforms until NVIDIA has a proven track record with this program. We certainly welcome the competition that NVIDIA brings to this market space as it will only improve the pricing and offerings available to IT organizations.

Intel certainly recognizes this challenge and has already responded with the addition of the Conroe and Broadwater products to their 2006 Professional Business Platform. A decision we believe that will allow Intel to provide greater overall system performance whil matching or bettering the thermal capabilities of the current NVIDIA/AMD product design. Intel has also substantially upgraded their networking interface capability while improving Active Management Technology to better handle and isolate threats from incoming malware.

Although we do not have either platform to test at this time, we do look forward to comparing the two platforms this summer and providing a detailed hardware/software analysis on each solution.

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