FirePro S7100 graphics cards bring hardware GPU virtualization to life

AMD first revealed its plans for hardware-based GPU virtualization, called Multiuser GPU or MxGPU, in September of last year. Today, the company is taking the wraps off the first two FirePro server cards that incorporate those hardware features: the FirePro S7150 and the FirePro S7150 X2. AMD says these cards are ideal for delivering workstation-class graphics in virtual desktop infrastructure (or VDI) environments.

AMD believes the S7100-series cards will help organizations solve a couple of growing problems with workstation computing. For one, the company says organizations are dealing with increasingly large data sets, and those data sets need to remain secure, as well. In turn, it makes sense for those data sets to live in the datacenter rather than on a client workstation. Using virtualized graphics also lets workers use thin-and-light computers on the go rather than a desktop workstation that's tied to one place.

What's in that "hardware-based virtualization" name? In short, AMD uses the SR-IOV standard to present the physical graphics card as multiple virtual devices on the PCIe bus. The hardware then uses time-slicing to switch between each of 16 virtual contexts in a round-robin fashion, performing computations and returning the results of that work to the client before moving on to the next context. AMD says this approach delivers more consistent performance and more secure computing, since no one user can tie up the entire graphics card and each virtual client has its own distinct slice of the GPU's memory.

Both S7100-series cards are built using AMD's Tonga GPU. The S7150 is a single-slot, single-GPU card with 2,048 stream processors that will be available in active- or passively-cooled versions. This card is expected to operate in a 150W thermal envelope. The S7150 X2 is a passively-cooled, dual-GPU card that'll only be available in a dual-slot, full-height configuration. It'll offer 4,096 stream processors across its two GPUs, and it'll dissipate 265W in operation.

Since both of these cards are designed for use in VDI environments, neither features built-in display outputs. Both cards are also less than 10.5" long for compatibility with common server chassis, and they both feature out-of-band temperature monitoring support.

On the host side, MxGPU is compatible with VMWare's ESXi and vSphere solutions from version 5.5 on. AMD will support Windows 7 and 8.1 as guest operating systems, using the same graphics driver it provides for non-virtualized desktop operating systems. Each GPU can handle up to 16 users, so the S7150 will support up to 16 users per card while the S7150 X2 can handle up to 32. Graphics performance will scale inversely with the number of users. AMD says 2-6 designers or engineers can share an S7100-series GPU, while 6-10 "CAD viewers" or up to 16 "knowledge workers" can make use of the card.

Nvidia offers a similar solution with its Grid virtual graphics product for businesses, but AMD's MxGPU could offer some compelling advantages over Grid in some cases. For one, S7100-series GPUs can provide OpenCL support to all virtual users without relying on pass-through mode, which dedicates the resources of an entire graphics card to a single virtual user. AMD MxGPU also doesn't rely on per-user licenses or profiles as Grid does, so system administrators are free to provision an entire S7100-series virtual graphics card among their VDI VMs as they see fit.

The S7150 will carry a $2399 MSRP when it becomes available in servers from major vendors in the first half of this year, while the S7150 X2 will be priced at $3999.

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