HP new graphics blade server to support Nvidia GRID

The “Blade Workstation” given a broader role to play in remote graphics

By Alex Herrera

HP recently announced it was supporting Nvidia’s GRID technology in its next-generation graphics server blade, the HP WS460c. And while we’ve long expected to see a GRID-enabled server product from HP, the form this support takes is noteworthy, one that should benefit from the far broader opportunities that GRID’s ad­vancements in remote rendering tech­nology should provide.

The new HP's WS460c Graphics Server Blade is supporting Nvidia's render-remotely/display-anywhere GRID technology. (Source: HP)
The new HP’s WS460c Graphics Server Blade is supporting Nvidia’s render-remotely/display-anywhere GRID technology. (Source: HP)

With GRID, Nvidia is proposing moving “GPUs to the Cloud,” promis­ing high-quality, high-performance 3D graphics anywhere, any time, on any device. The technology promises “re­mote graphics with local look and feel,” an interactive visual experience inde­pendent of whether rendering is being performed by the server in the local datacenter or by some cloud service halfway around the world.

Now, HP’s announcement of GRID support was no surprise. For over a year, as Nvidia has been previewing and drumming up support for GRID, it has consistently touted HP as a partner. Clearly a server-class GRID product was in the offering. But what is interesting is how HP is planning this (at least one phase of) GRID deployment: by upgrad­ing the existing ws460c Graphics Server Blade, or what the company previous­ly called Blade Workstations. The new GRID-enabled version of the WS460c will be available this fall at prices start­ing at just under $9,000.

The current model WS460c Blade Workstation is a conventional blade server built on Intel Core i5 or Pentium CPUs, with the exception that added to each blade’s processors and memory is a small, low -profile, low-power Nvidia Quadro MXM module. Rather than rendering graphics on the client side— with a deskside workstation, for exam­ple exam­ple—the Blade Workstation model puts the rendering burden back on the server, which uses the network to send images to a relatively “dumb” client.

With the existing solutions, one graphics-enabled blade server (a.k.a. Blade Workstation) is allocated to one user via a mode commonly referred to as “GPU pass-through.” That is, each user still gets a dedicated GPU, but rath­er than sitting deskside in the client, that GPU is in one of many blades residing in a remote server. All that’s required of the client—a thin one perhaps—is han­dling I/O (display, USB, keyboard).

To date, graphics-enabled blade serv­ers have been interesting, but with ap­peal generally limited to niche applica­tions. We estimate the company’s been selling approximately 10,000 to 20,000 blade workstations a year, primarily to spaces that don’t have the greatest demand for performance and also value quiet, cool­er, and less obtrusive computing at the desk. Think financial markets.

GRID and VGX should sweeten the proposition for prospective buyers

Upgrading the WS460c’s support from conventional Quadro modules to Nvidia’s new GRID K1 and K2 GPUs is not only logical, it will expand the appeal and business prospects of HP Graphics Server Blades. Sure, GPU pass-through can be useful in some appli­cation spaces that value the fact that the bulk of the processing and data is tucked away in the backroom rather than deskside.

Still, this mode’s limitation that one GPU can only connect to one client/user at a time is a significant draw­back for most workstation-type ap­plications. And Nvidia didn’t put this much wood behind the GRID arrow to stop with this simple version of server-based graphics—not when there’s a lot more value to exploit in having remote GPU power shared among multiple cli­ents in multiple locations. The payoff is in virtualizing the GPU, such that one physical, server-based GPU can render graphics for more than one remote client; perhaps many.

Nvidia’s GRID and Virtual Graphics Technology (VGX) offers the promise of high-performance, interactive graphics delivered from servers to thin clients. (Source: Nvidia)
Nvidia’s GRID and Virtual Graphics Technology (VGX) offers the promise of high-performance, interactive graphics delivered from servers to thin clients. (Source: Nvidia)

With GRID’s VGX mode, a physical GPU with virtualization support (along with compatible VGX support in the hypervisor) presents a true virtual GPU (i.e., “vGPU”) to the application, similar to the rest of the virtual machine com­ponents (e.g., vCPU, vMemory). And because support is mostly in hardware, there are minimal performance-wasting—and latency increasing—cycles spent in soft­ware abstraction and maintaining API and application compatibility.

Benefits of centralizing data are many, particularly as the sheer volume of visual computing data continues to explode. When models and supporting data were relatively small, compared to image pixels, it might have been easi­er to move the model back and forth from client to server or among clients. But we’ve gotten to a point where the opposite is true. Depending on the ap­plication space, visualization data has moved into the Terabytes, with growth extrapolation going only one way … up, and steeply. Meanwhile, frame rates are static (e.g., 60 Hz), and growth in pix­els, while up, is on a shallower curve, not to mention, for many, in the area of diminishing returns.

As a result, it makes sense to ques­tion the old paradigm of moving the models and data to the client to keep all the pixel bandwidth local, and instead consider a new one: leave that big data in a central datacenter, visualize it on a remote server, and ship the pixels to a thin, and arguably less expensive, client. Once that shift is made, several signifi­cant advantages emerge, benefiting vari­ous types of users engaged in a range of visually rich tasks. A user can more easily share that data with a colleague, whether sitting in an adjoining cubicle or in an office a half a world away. And IT managers can more readily add and manage users, security, and applications with data and computes located in one physical location.

In conjunction with the WS460c, HP unveiled a companion thin client solution, the HP t820. The t820 runs Windows Embedded Standard OS on a hardware foundation of Intel Core i5 processor, with storage, memory, com­munications, and I/O resembling a PC or low-end workstation. With the t820, GRID technology, and supporting VDI applications, HP can offer a complete solution for enterprises looking to either replace or augment deskside worksta­tions with server-side computation and rendering.

VGX technology with hardware GPU virtualization, enabled by HP's upgraded GRID-enabled WS460c Graphics Server Blade. (Source: Nvidia)
VGX technology with hardware GPU virtualization, enabled by HP’s upgraded GRID-enabled WS460c Graphics Server Blade. (Source: Nvidia)

Our take

We think remote-rendering technol­ogy, particularly with the capabilities and performance GRID promises with virtualized GPU sharing, will have a role to play with customers and instal­lations that today rely on conventional workstations. How big a role is yet to be seen, depending on many questions we continue to raise, most notably how well end-to-end latency can be mini­mized and controlled to truly deliver that “local look and feel.”

With the WS460c, HP won’t be standing on the sidelines watching how the GRID/VGX technology deployment changes the shape of the workstation computing landscape. It can’t afford to watch and wait; as the leader in worksta­tion volume, it needs to be ready to not only provide cutting-edge workstations, but to provide any technology that may be in a position to replace workstations. HP didn’t get to be the world leader in workstations by leaving things to chance. GRID-enabled blade servers are helping cover the company’s bases, re­gardless of how the acceptance of yet-to-be-proven remote rendering evolves.

Alex Herrera is a senior contributing analyst at Jon Peddie Research.