Nvidia announces ESA specification


Standardizing system monitoring
— 8:00 AM on November 5, 2007

Every so often, I sit back and marvel at just how astounding the PC industry really is. Where else are you consistently treated to new waves of products that offer significant performance improvements, often at lower prices? It's more than just the pace of innovation that impresses me, though. The fact that enthusiasts can put together systems from individual components designed and built by a wide range of manufacturers and have them all work together harmoniously is a testament to not only the versatility of the platform, but the strength of standards that guarantee interoperability within it.

However, despite our ability to build systems from a variety of parts, we often know very little about the state of our PCs once they're assembled and running. We can monitor a few things, of course, such as the speed and temperature of our processors and graphics chips. Some motherboards also report fan speeds and system temperatures, but that still leaves us pretty blind to what's going on under the hood. What's worse, there are no standards that govern how these variables are reported, making monitoring what little we can difficult if not impossible with a single application.

Now most folks probably don't need or even want to monitor every little system variable from the comfort of their desktop. But enthusiasts aren't most folks; we baby our PCs, taking great care to carefully tweak their configurations to deliver an uncanny blend of silence, stability, and performance. We want as much information about and control of our hardware as possible, which is why Nvidia has drafted an Enthusiast System Architecture (ESA) specification that aims to standardize hardware monitoring and control over system components. Join us as we explore the ESA spec and the potential it holds.

E to the S to the A
The ESA spec blends hardware and software to create a framework for monitoring and controlling PC components. On the hardware side, components are equipped with analog sensors to monitor variables such as temperature, voltage, fan speed, and so on. Those sensors hook into an embedded microcontroller that translates their analog output into digital signals reported to the PC over USB. ESA is actually built around the USB specification for human interface devices, or USB HID—the very same spec that governs mice and keyboards—so getting ESA-equipped hardware to converse with your PC should be as easy as plugging in a USB jack.

Sensors and monitoring are only the first part of the ESA equation, though. Nvidia has built sufficient flexibility into the spec to allow ESA devices to be controlled by software. ESA recognition occurs during the system boot process, too, so there's no need to have an operating system running to take advantage of it.

Nvidia has submitted ESA to the USB-if (USB's governing body) HID subcommittee for discussion and hopes that the spec will be officially ratified. The spec is an open one and carries no licensing fees, so if it isn't accepted by the USB-if, Nvidia has pledged to release it for free. Adding ESA support to their hardware shouldn't cost hardware makers a dime, at least once they get past the cost of microcontrollers, sensors, and product development.

While the burden of adding ESA support to their products falls upon manufacturers, the standard's open nature should guarantee that anyone can write applications that interface with ESA-compliant hardware. Nvidia has its own ESA app, of course, and we'll be able to tell you more about it soon. Some hardware manufacturers building ESA-compliant parts are also working on their own software, and Nvidia says existing monitoring apps will be free to plug into ESA, too.

Since compatibility is essential to the ESA equation, Nvidia has proposed that ESA-certified hardware be tagged with an official logo, much like SLI-certified power supplies and motherboards. Certification will be conducted by independent test lab Allion, the same outfit employed by USB, Wi-Fi, PCI Express, HDMI, and Serial ATA standards bodies. However, certification only covers a correct implementation of the ESA spec; it doesn't prescribe which variables should be monitored or require that users be given any additional control over the hardware.

The ESA certification logo. Source: Nvidia

This open-ended approach gives manufacturers loads of freedom and the spec even more potential. Take power supplies, for example. ESA-compliant units could report voltage fluctuations along each rail, allowing users to spot sagging lines before they begin to affect overall stability or damage system components. A power supply could also report its internal temperature and yield control of its fan speed, giving software the ability to present users with all sorts of temperature-based fan speed controls.

Tuning a rig's cooling system is one of the most intriguing applications for ESA, and chassis makers will be able to get in on the action. In fact, Nvidia says that chassis makers have been asking for such a standard so they can add value to their products and provide an additional level of differentiation. ESA-compliant cases could contain numerous temperature probes to allow users to watch for hot spots within their systems, and in conjunction with chassis fan speed control, find the optimal balance between noise levels and cooling performance.

Nvidia has been working with cooling companies, too. Most of their attention appears to be directed towards water cooling, where there are several variables one might want to monitor. An ESA-compliant water cooler could, for example, report flow rates, reservoir levels, and coolant temperatures at various points in the system.

Extensive hardware monitoring would be new to power supplies, chassis, and water coolers, but ESA also holds promise for devices that have long reported system variables. Motherboards are one of the most intriguing ESA applications, not because they're short of hardware monitoring features, but because ESA could finally standardize how that reporting takes place. Today, getting the most of your motherboard's hardware monitoring usually requires using bloated or otherwise clumsy software provided by the manufacturer. With ESA, you could pick the application and theoretically monitor your motherboard's temperatures, voltages, and fan speeds, and control how its fans react to temperatures and other variables with the same app you use to keep tabs on your PSU, chassis, water cooler, and so on.

Great in theory, but...
The Enthusiast System Architecture spec is steeped with potential for not only enthusiasts looking to carefully tweak and monitor their systems, but also for system builders and major OEMs seeking to consolidate hardware monitoring to make life easier on their customers. Nvidia has a long list of partners who have already pledged to deploy ESA-compliant hardware, including but not limited to industry heavyweights such as Alienware, Dell, HP, Asus, Gigabyte, MSI, CoolIt, Cooler Master, TPC Power & Cooling, Tagan, and Thermaltake. The future looks bright for ESA then, except for one little thing.

ESA certification only covers the correct implementation of the protocol, so it doesn't ensure even a base level of monitoring or control functionality for individual devices. Certification essentially defines a common communication standard without requiring that devices actually have anything to say. And if devices do pipe up, there's no guarantee that what they have to say will be correct, either. A power supply could report incorrect voltages or a water cooler could be too optimistic about its coolant temperature and no one would be the wiser.

So the success of ESA, or at least its ultimate usefulness for enthusiasts, will largely depend on how well it's implemented by device makers. Some may do a better job than others, and we'll be keeping tabs on how actual implementations pan out. We should be able to give you a closer look at actual examples of ESA-compliant hardware soon.

Until then, Nvidia should be commended for drafting ESA in the first place. The industry could certainly use an open standard for hardware monitoring and control, and ESA is the best proposition we've seen to date.

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Tags: Systems