Avalon and Windows Graphics Foundation 2.0

Avalon is the new face of windows graphics and promises to bring new and wonderful capabilities to desktop applications. Having worked with windows GDI, we can absolutely say that anything would be a step up, and we hope that Avalon will deliver on its promises.

The idea is that Avalon sits on top of the Windows Graphics Foundation (WGF is the new name for DirectX), and will allow easy access to advanced 2D and 3D features of modern hardware on the desktop. The Aero Glass demo shown at the keynote used pixel shaders to render semi-transparent borders that blurred whatever sat behind the window. This is just one example of what can be done with Avalon, and we hope that application developers will find new and better ways to improve the actual interface rather than just adding eye candy. One of the Avalon demos we saw included an application to organize images in a folder. The images were arranged in a cylinder with the view at the center. It was a pretty neat little demo of what is possible on the desktop with the new technology.

Avalon is part of the WinFX package that will be released for Windows XP as well as Longhorn. This will allow developers to quickly adopt new features without needing to worry about legacy support for Windows XP users. Of course, it removes the new advanced UI, remote, and filesystem technology from the list of reasons to upgrade when Longhorn comes along.

Metadata from the ground up is a theme of Longhorn's UI. Files will have icons that are rendered from the actual data and can be zoomed at will. This means that your documents, spreadsheets and presentations will show the actual text charts graphs and slides in them. Microsoft is even making it easier for proprietary files to be included in metadata by allowing vendors to include very limited decode functionality without anything else (this way we will even be able to view .RAW and other interesting file formats via the OS).



On top of that, the Windows Graphics Foundation already essentially exists on Windows XP. WGF 1.0 is also known as DirectX 9.L and will add a couple new features beyond DirectX 9.0c. These new features include: cross-process shared surfaces, managed graphics memory (and virtualized graphics memory), prioritization of reasources, text antialiasing, advanced gamma functions, and device removed (in order to gracefully recover from a failure the hardware can be "removed" and then "added"). The device removed feature will also be used for hot replace/add features. These are the basic advancements in the graphical interface of Longhorn.

Microsoft is going to make it a point to not break existing applications with Longhorn. All functions of older APIs will be mapped to DX9 functions. It will be interesting to see if there is any performance improvement here because Microsoft is planning on mapping older fixed function features to vertex and pixel shader programs. But the really interesting part of Longhorn (at least to graphics nuts) will be Windows Graphics Foundation 2.0.

In order to take advantage of all the advanced features of Longhorn, hardware will need to support WGF 2.0. Microsoft is currently considering making WGF 2.0 support a requirement for Gold Logo certification (meaning that it would be impossible to buy a computer system today that is fully Gold Logo). But we can't make any hard and fast statements about either WGF 2.0 or the Gold Logo program as neither is finalized.



We do know a little bit about the upcoming next step in the DirectX line. Aside from the new features in WGF 1.0, we will also see some new pipeline stages. Geometry shading will allow programmers to work with whole primitives at a time (where vertex and pixel shaders only allow working with one pixel or vertex). This will enable such things as easily generating per-primitive data for pixel shaders, easier handling of normals and colors, and some manipulation of the primitive (extrusion/expansion).

The fact that DX10 (or WGF2.0) hardware will need to allow stream output from the middle of the pipeline (and feedback to the front of the pipeline with predication) means much more flexibility for developers. For example, developers could use this feature to create a fast, efficient way to generate dynamic reflection, environment, or shadow maps (especially when combined with the new geometry shader). And vertex and geometry shader textures will be completely supported as well.

We can also expect Microsoft to come through with a much more detailed and stringent specification for WGF 2.0. It seems that the extent to which DX9 hardware can vary has gotten their attention. In one of the sessions we attended, it was stressed that Microsoft doesn't want software developers to have to cater to multiple hardware paths in order to get good performance. In fact, they went so far as to say that they wanted a tight enough spec so that WGF 2.0 hardware would all support the same features implemented in the same way. Foreshadowing this, all capability bits have been eliminated from WGF 2.0 (meaning that either hardware will or will not support exactly the same set of functions as all other WGF 2.0 hardware). Vendor specific extensions will still be accessible through OpenGL, and we can expect the top graphics IHVs to try and differentiate themselves somehow. It may just become more of an AMD/Intel type of race where the differences come down to the underlying hardware architecture and technology.

Aside from all of this, a feature of the LDDM (Longhorn Display Driver Model) that we find really interesting (aside from windows managed virtualized memory) is that Microsoft wants to provide a scheduler for the GPU in order to have multiple graphics programs running on a single piece of hardware at the same time. At first, this will be support by simply batching together requests from different processes and scheduling them, but the future will be more complex. Hardware makers will need to put some effort into providing for context switching in graphics hardware. It will be interesting to see how efficiently this is implemented, as it could generate quite a bit of hardware overhead.

That's about the extent of the current knowledge we have on WGF 2.0 and the LDDM. To be sure, we will bring you more information as we get a hold of it.

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  • DerekWilson - Saturday, April 30, 2005 - link

    heh ... not even the CPU editor has all the CPUs he needs. We've been passing our one set of dual core processors from both vendors around the globe. :-) Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, April 29, 2005 - link

    The *official* plan is for Longhorn to be widely available by the holiday 2006 time frame (see day 1 coverage). However, I think XP-64 was supposed to be available over a year ago as well. Call me a skeptic....

    The point about going next year is that, from what I could tell, certain things are just repeated in slightly updated formats each year. Longhorn was discussed last WinHEC, and the information this time was simply a bit more concrete. There were still quite a few "this isn't yet finalized..." disclaimers throughout the presentations.

    I suppose since I'm local to WinHEC (I'm in Olympia, WA), at the very least I'll be going to some of the MS events in the future. We'll have to see how that pans out. Maybe next time I can make it to the Sunday AMD Gaming gig and get a free Athlon 64 4000+? (Yeah, we missed out on that. Not that we don't have lots of hardware already, but having an extra CPU never hurts. Especially when you're not the CPU editor. Heheh)
    Reply
  • PrinceGaz - Friday, April 29, 2005 - link

    Fascinating. Probably the most relevent event report I've read. The IDF is interesting to see where the hardware is going, but it is the software that we use on a day to day basis, and what Microsoft are planning is likely to impact us the most in the next few years.

    "At the end of the show, while we would definitely say that WinHEC doesn't have the appeal of Computex, E3, or some of the other larger shows, there was still plenty of good information to be found. Will we go again next year?"...

    I can't believe you are even wondering whether to go again. Though if Anand is using his Mac all the time now and abandoned PCs, and those of you with PCs have switched from Windows to Linux, then I could understand your hesitation. I jest of course, but what happens with Microsoft is likely to be more important to the PC user than any hardware development, so there is no way you can neglect it.

    I thought Longhorn was due out mid-2006, rather than "two years time". Longhron has seemed to be due out in "two years time" for quite a few years now, such that I wonder if it will ever actually arrive. And when it does arrive, will it actually contain many of the improvements originally touted over Windows 2000/XP (such as the central WinFS file-system which they decided would delay Longhorn too long). So are Microsoft officially saying 2007 is Longhorn year now?

    Personally I'm in no hurry for Longhorn if it is crippled with DRM restrictions everywhere. The whole pointy of a PC is I can do what I wish with the media I have obtained, whether purchased or from other sources. I would say that being able to view perfect and complete "try before I buy" content has had the main effect with me of making me buy stuff I otherwise wouldn't have considered, rather than simply using it as an alternative to purchasing discs. Content protection that limits consumer choice (even if that choice includes free downloads) is and always has been detrimental to the industry.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, April 29, 2005 - link

    DOS is still in use as a deployment tool. You can still license DOS from MS, but that will cease to be the case as of 2006. I work as an IT guy for a huge corporation, and our PC build process goes like this:

    1) Boot from floppy.
    2) Select PC configuration.
    3) Watch Drive Image clone the XP image to the HDD.
    4) XP loads up and finishes the device enumeration, joins the appropriate domain, etc.
    5) Choose SMS pacakages and wait.... (The final stages of the build process can take as long as an hour or two, depending on the SMS packages that are selected for installation.)

    The problem is that getting DOS network drivers as well as support for newer technologies (SATA) is getting more and more difficult. The whole setup process would be more streamlined if HQ personnel didn't have to worry about DOS. I would wager that we'll still continue to use DOS and Drive Image for at least another 5 years, just because that's the way this corporation is, but it's nice to know that eventually they'll be forced to update the process to something that is hopefully faster and more robust.
    Reply
  • icarus4586 - Friday, April 29, 2005 - link

    "R.I.P. MS-DOS, 2005"
    This part of the article doesn't make much sense. The huge majority of Windows machines are either 2000 or XP, both of which are NT. NT does not run on DOS. MS-DOS was dead with WinME, and should have been dead far before.
    Reply
  • ProviaFan - Friday, April 29, 2005 - link

    Interesting stuff... Out of all of it, I found the (U)EFI coverage to be most intriguing, since normally the BIOS is one of the least represented PC components in computer news coverage. ;) Reply
  • stephenbrooks - Friday, April 29, 2005 - link

    "One giant Microsoft fest"?? That got me saying "Ewww!" before I started the article. XD Images of hordes of Barney ActiMates™ coming to play with me came to mind. Reply

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