But can it stream Crysis? Nvidia’s new cloud gaming server explained

Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang unveils the Nvidia Grid server on the firm’s CES presentation.

Andrew Cunningham

The most fascinating information to come back out of Nvidia’s two-hour-plus press convention Sunday night time was doubtlessly the Tegra 4 mobile processor, adopted carefully by its intriguing Project Shield tablet-turned-handheld recreation console. However, firm CEO Jen-Hsun Huang additionally revealed a small morsel of stories in regards to the cloud gaming initiative that Nvidia talked up back in May: the Nvidia Grid, the corporate’s personal server designed particularly to function the back-end for cloud gaming companies.

Thus far, virtualized and streaming recreation companies haven’t set the world on hearth. OnStay most likely had the best profile of any such service, and although it continues to live on, it has been outlined extra by its troubled monetary historical past than its success.

We stopped by Nvidia’s CES sales space to get some further perception into simply how the Grid servers do their factor and the way Nvidia is seeking to overcome the technical drawbacks inherent to cloud gaming companies.

What it is and the way it works

Jen-Hsun Huang next to a rack of Grid servers.
Enlarge / Jen-Hsun Huang subsequent to a rack of Grid servers.

Kyle Orland

The firm’s intent with Grid is to provide a wholly self-contained system that requires no further {hardware} or software program to do its job, so a rack of Grid servers truly has a few completely different constructing blocks.

The fundamental block of the Nvidia Grid system is the gaming server itself, a 2U rack-mountable field containing 12 Nvidia GPUs every able to supporting two simultaneous customers (for a complete of 24 customers per field.) To assist extra customers, you merely add extra containers. These servers are doubtless utilizing a variant of the identical expertise driving Nvidia’s VGX graphics cards, which additionally promise cloud-based 3D graphics efficiency however deal with workstation purposes reasonably than gaming. Each server rack (see above) can maintain 20 of those servers, for a complete of 480 customers per rack, and every server consumes between 800 and 900 watts of energy below load.

Coordinating the completely different Grid servers is dealt with by a separate “grasp” server, often known as the administration server. This handles issues like person authentication, distribution of person periods throughout servers, database storage for person credentials and knowledge, and some different issues. Nvidia recommends that every 20-server Grid rack ought to be paired with one administration server, which ought to stability the load successfully in addition to present redundancy.

Nvidia desires the method of operating video games on the Grid system to be as simple as attainable for its companions and builders—as such, each the gaming servers and administration servers are powered by Windows Server, so the video games being streamed are simply customary Windows PC video games similar to those you’d play in your PC regionally.

Battling lag

The largest concern with any cloud gaming setup is latency, and Nvidia is bringing its expertise in GPU-assisted computing to bear to scale back it, not less than on the server finish: the 720p and 1080p H.264 video streams which can be despatched to the person are literally encoded immediately on the Grid server’s GPU, reasonably than being despatched to a separate server devoted solely to the duty of video encoding (and in so doing, growing the chance of lag.) So how a lot quicker is it than, say, OnStay’s present system?

“[OnLive’s] present implementation makes use of exterior {hardware} encoding, which takes some time,” GeForce Grid product supervisor Andrew Fear instructed Ars. “When you are doing it like we’re doing, on the GPU, it saves about 20ms of time for encoding over that. Also, via our drivers, we have now a fast-pass recapturing encoding which saves one other 10ms, so we can save about 30ms on the server. On the decode facet, if we detect an Nvidia GPU, both a Tegra or a Geforce, we can use their decoder pack, which can be optimized, to avoid wasting about 10 ms on the decode facet. So total we can save about 40 ms.”

On the person’s finish, Nvidia says that customers ought to solely want about 6Mbps obtain speeds to take pleasure in clean 720p video streams, a velocity that ought to be properly inside attain for many cable and plenty of DSL subscribers. When I requested whether or not the servers would assist lower-quality or Netflix-style adaptive streaming to account for slower (or inconsistent) Internet connections, I did not get a transparent reply—the corporate is most interested by delivering clear 720p and 1080p video streams, even when enjoying on a small smartphone display (simply in case that small display occurs to be linked to a bigger monitor or tv). Whether the person can select between 720p and 1080p streams (or different resolutions) might be left as much as the service suppliers.

In idea, the service appears to work fairly easily. Everything within the Grid part of the corporate’s sales space—a mixture of smartphones, tablets, displays, and televisions—was operating off of 1 Grid server, which was delivering crisp lag-free pictures to all the things. All of that stated, there are nonetheless loads of transferring elements not current in Nvidia’s sales space—precise server load, large-scale implementations, and distance between the server and the person—that might all nonetheless make the service too laggy to be satisfying in the true world.

Convenience, not efficiency

Grid wants to bring PC gaming to new devices, not replace your gaming rig.
Enlarge / Grid desires to deliver PC gaming to new units, not substitute your gaming rig.

Andrew Cunningham

To additional enhance the consistency of the service, the variety of computing sources devoted to every person is fixed whether or not one person or 24 customers are utilizing the Grid server—this differs from many enterprise-class virtualization merchandise, which can dynamically allocate CPU cycles or RAM or different sources to customers primarily based on server load.

The upside is that customers ought to discover no variations in graphics high quality or efficiency no matter how many individuals are enjoying on a given server at a time. The draw back is that graphical high quality is mounted and usually will not exceed that of a mid-range gaming desktop—in the event you do the maths from Nvidia’s slide, 200 TFLOPS per rack divided by 240 GPUs divided by two customers per GPU comes out to round 417 GFLOPS of efficiency per person, roughly equal to one of many weaker GeForce GT 640 playing cards in line with this handy table (or almost twice the uncooked graphics efficiency of an Xbox 360, a typical comparability level for graphics efficiency all through CES). Nvidia nonetheless desires to promote its GeForce playing cards, in spite of everything, so avid gamers who need the perfect visuals are nonetheless going to be pushed in that course.

The Grid server system (and the companies which can be powered by it) are supposed, reasonably, to deliver PC gaming to locations the place it could not in any other case go: particularly smartphones, tablets, and low-end PCs. Nvidia’s personal Grid demo through the keynote was run on an Android pill tethered to a Bluetooth gamepad. Nvidia additionally desires to have shoppers accessible for much more units, together with sensible TVs and set-top containers—something that can decode an H.264 stream and hook up with an enter system can, theoretically, turn out to be a gaming PC.

Content continues to be king

It’s value noting that every one Nvidia is doing with the Grid is offering the backend for a cloud gaming service—it might be as much as companions to buy the servers, construct companies, after which persuade builders and publishers to make their video games accessible on these companies. That greater than something has been the largest disadvantage of cloud gaming companies up to now: they merely can’t compete with what’s accessible on the digital retailer cabinets of a longtime retailer like Steam. A number of companions—Agawi, CloudUnion, Cyber Cloud, G-Cluster, Playcast, and Ubitus—had been introduced on the keynote on Sunday, however solely Agawi relies within the United States and none of them are giant.

Nvidia is promoting dev kits comprised of 1 administration server and two gaming servers to its companions now at an undisclosed worth, and that is the place the expertise will ether flourish or languish. Nvidia envisions cloud gaming companies which can be as inexpensive, dependable, and widely-used as Netflix is immediately; all they should do it is buy-in from the individuals who truly make video games.

Additional reporting offered by Kyle Orland.

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