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The Enthusiast System Architecture in action

ESA hardware under the microscope

NVIDIA announced its Enthusiast System Architecture (ESA) back in November, promising to consolidate system and hardware monitoring under a single communication protocol. The open standard has been put before the USB-if (the standards body that governs the USB spec) HID subcommittee with hopes of ratification, and even if it's not approved, Nvidia has pledged to make ESA available for free and without licensing fees.

Of course, ESA itself is merely a communication protocol; it governs how variables you might want to monitor, such as temperatures, voltages, or fan speeds, are passed over a standard USB connection to the host system. Two other elements are required for meaningful system monitoring and control. First, you need ESA-compliant hardware with valuable information to report. Second, software is required to gather data from ESA devices and present it to the user.

Today, we have our first look at both courtesy of an Nvidia demo system loaded with ESA components. Running the show are new versions of Nvidia's control panel and system monitoring software optimized with ESA in mind, providing users with an unprecedented level of control over system variables and customizable hardware monitoring. Keep reading for an in-depth look at ESA in action, in both hardware and software.

The system
Certified hardware is a key component of the ESA equation, and Nvidia's demo system is packed with it.

In fact, the entire system is wrapped in an ESA-compliant chassis courtesy of a new version of Cooler Master's Cosmos 1000 enclosure. We're big fans of the Cosmos, so we're happy to see it among the first to receive the ESA treatment.

Inside the system we find more ESA-certified goodies, including a Tagan BZ 1100W power supply and a CoolIt Freezone Elite thermoelectric processor cooler. The motherboard, an EVGA 122-CK-NF68 based on Nvidia's nForce 680i SLI chipset, is also ESA-approved.

These aren't the only ESA-equipped parts on the market, though. Nvidia tells us that Thermaltake currently offers 850W and 1300W variants of its ToughPower ESA power supply alongside an Armor+ ESA chassis and an ESA-certified BigWater 780e water cooler. Cooler Master has jumped on the ESA train with a 1200W power supply and an Aquagate Max water cooler that's currently undergoing certification. PC Power & Cooling's Turbo 1200W ESA power supply is also being certified, as is Silverstone's TJ10 ESA enclosure. Both are expected to hit the market in early February.

One thing you'll notice inside an ESA system is a whole lot more cabling. The Cosmos chassis, for example, has numerous fans that must all be plugged into a central control box located at the top of the case. This control box is responsible for fan speed control and monitoring, so there's no need to plug fans into the power supply. We also see several temperature sensors wired into the chassis control box for monitoring system temperatures at various locations inside the case.

The extra wiring will present a challenge for those obsessed with clean cable routing, but there's nothing a handful of zip ties won't fix. Chassis makers should be able to clean up most of the fan and temperature sensor wiring themselves, as well.

DIY system builders will also have to contend with external control boxes for some components. This demo system's CoolIt processor cooler, for example, uses an external control box to house the ESA microcontroller and USB connection. The box nicely tucks away in a 3.5" internal drive bay, so it doesn't get in the way here.

Since ESA is built around the USB spec, each component must be connected to the motherboard via USB. Internal motherboard headers are the most likely candidates for these connections, but it's possible that they'll fill up fast in systems loaded with ESA components. Fortunately, ESA components can be connected via USB hubs. Some chassis manufacturers are expected to include these hubs in their ESA cases to ease the demand for onboard USB headers.