review the enthusiast system architecture in action

The Enthusiast System Architecture in action

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.

A new control panel
Hardware is only one part of the ESA equation. Software ties the individual components together with a unified interface, and the open nature of the standard allows anyone to write their own ESA app. To get the ball rolling, Nvidia has whipped up a new set of nForce System Tools designed with ESA in mind. These tools require an nForce motherboard, although they’ve only been tested with 680i and 780i chipsets. Your mileage may vary with older nForce vintages.

Among Nvidia’s new system tools is an updated control panel that offers extensive control over system variables for standard and ESA components alike. This new control panel replaces much of the functionality included previously in Nvidia’s nTune system utility, so there are plenty of options for overclocking.

As one might expect given its nTune heritage, the control panel also serves up access to scores of motherboard voltages, clocks, and fan speeds.

Memory timings are included, as is control over the system’s memory voltage. Remember, though, that it’s up to mobo makers to implement the necessary hooks for these motherboard tweaking options to actually work.

Nvidia has also put GPU overclocking into the new control panel, giving users control over not only individual clock speeds within the graphics chip, but the graphics card’s cooling fan speed, as well.

Thus far, none of the control panel’s functionality has really been ESA-specific. That changes when we switch to the power supply tab, which details the PSU’s voltage, current, and power across five rails. This information isn’t presented particularly well, and there are no variables for users to manipulate, but that nicely illustrates the freedom component makers have when it comes to ESA support. There are no standards that govern what an ESA-certified component must report, how that information must be presented, or even that it be accurate. ESA certification only confirms correct implementation of the communication protocol.

Since the accuracy of information reported by ESA components is paramount, we pulled out our trusty digital oscilloscope and probed the system’s power supply to double-check voltages levels reported in the control panel. They were all accurate, indicating that at least this power supply is playing fair.

Moving to the chassis tab, we get our first peek at what ESA means for case control. Here, users are free to manipulate exhaust and intake fan speeds. Cooler Master has chosen to consolidate multiple fans under the exhaust and intake sliders, but chassis makers are certainly free to provide users with control over each case fan individually. This is also where the device rules section of the control panel gets interesting. More on that feature in a moment.

First, we’ll have a quick look at the water cooling tab. There really isn’t much to see, with only one slider provided to set a target coolant temperature. Note that this cooling system isn’t reporting a water level, either. The cooler in question is a factory-sealed unit, so users don’t have to worry about the coolant level. But for DIY water cooling setups, having an ESA-certified reservoir report fluid levels could be very valuable.

Now, on to those device rules. Click on the “New Rule” button and you’re presented with a simple interface, in this case controlling the water cooler, that lets you set a fan speed ramping profile based on the coolant temperature. Forget oscillating between arbitrary high and low fan speed values, or even linear fan speed ramping; this is a much more powerful tool. And it’s a flexible one, too, allowing users to create multiple rules based on different input variables and control elements.

Once users define rules and system settings within the control panel, they can save preferences to a profile. Multiple profiles are supported, and a profile policies section of the control panel allows users to set parameters that govern which profiles are launched when. Profiles can be tied to specific applications, system temperatures, processor idling, or even screensaver activity.

Profile policies are similar to the rules wizard found in Nvidia’s old nTune software, and there really isn’t anything ESA-specific here. However, policies give users blanket control over system profiles, within which they have control over individual ESA components. The new nForce System Tools aren’t just ESA-specific apps, then; they’re full-featured system utilities that just happen to exploit ESA hardware.

The system update app of these new system tools perhaps best illustrates how ESA has been woven into Nvidia’s software framework. Users can set the auto-updater to grab new motherboard BIOSes or check for updated Nvidia drivers. It’s also possible to use the updater to grab and install new firmware revisions for ESA components connected to the system.

Monitoring on a whole new level
To complement the nForce control panel’s vast array of overclocking and hardware tweaking options, Nvidia has created an all-new hardware monitoring app that keeps tabs on system variables tied to standard and ESA components. The monitoring tool has a fancy 3D interface that uses OpenGL and is about as sexy as any system monitoring tool we’ve seen.

System components are presented on a virtual Lazy Susan that users can spin by clicking on the various 3D icons. Below each we find a series of individual monitoring windows that track variables associated with the given component.

Spinning the Wheel of Components probably isn’t the most efficient way to monitor system variables, but it’s very slick, and provides users with numerous customization options.

This 3D interface pops up when you load the system monitor for the first time, and it serves as a library of sorts that catalogs all variables being monitored. Most users will only want to keep track of a subset of these variables, and doing so is as easy as double-clicking individual monitoring windows. Selected windows move over to a secondary interface that drops spinning 3D icons in favor of a less obtrusive display.

Individual monitoring windows can be spread throughout the Windows desktop and even banished from the screen with a hot-key combination. Each window provides real-time tracking of the variable associated with it, and you can expand the windows to display little graphs that track variables over time.

Even the little graphs can be customized, allowing users to select from an array of colors for each window. Unfortunately, there’s no “snap to” feature that allows one to line up the individual display windows easily.

Instead, one can drag and drop windows on top of each other to create groups. Graphs associated with each display window are grouped automatically, as well, although it’s not possible to combine multiple variables on a single graph.

One can, however, set individual preferences for each graph, including a polling frequency and an alert threshold. The latter is particularly useful for monitoring system temperatures.

When an alert is activated, the monitoring window turns red and starts flashing. It’s a little touch, really, but a nice one to have.

Speaking of little touches, users can also control the transparency of monitoring windows, allowing monitoring to blend seamlessly into a desktop landscape.

Perhaps more valuable is the monitoring utility’s logging capability. Every variable being tracked is eligible for logging, and Nvidia has managed to keep CPU utilization under 1% (on a Core 2 Duo E6850) with even the tightest polling frequency. Variables are logged to an XML file that can be viewed in any web browser and imported into Excel for further manipulation or graphing.

We still don’t know whether the Enthusiast System Architecture will be ratified by the USB-if, but we don’t need to wait on a subcommittee to see ESA in action. Certified motherboards, power supplies, chassis, and coolers are already on the market, and more are due out by month’s end. Nvidia has stepped up to the software plate, releasing a new nForce System Tools package that takes full advantage of ESA components within an excellent set of system tweaking tools and an all-new hardware monitoring app.

Despite its beta status, nForce System Tools is a surprisingly complete suite of applications with useful and unique features like rule definitions and an extremely flexible monitoring interface. Sure, the 3D monitoring GUI is a little over the top, but with the ability to roll your set of lightweight monitoring displays and log variables silently in the background, there’s a little something for everyone. Nvidia is soliciting users for input on new features, as well, so we may see even more functionality built into the System Tools suite moving forward. Personally, I’d like to see display windows that snap together (but don’t necessarily combine), graphs that display multiple variables, and in a tribute to Motherboard Monitor, the ability to track a few variables with simple text displays right in the Windows taskbar.

On the hardware front, the first wave of ESA components packed into Nvidia’s demo system nicely illustrate the potential the standard holds. The Tagan power supply, Cooler Master chassis, and CoolIt processor cooler all provide meaningful information for hardware monitoring, and some even include a measure of user control for things like fan speeds and target temperatures. However, just because these particular components provide extensive—and more importantly, accurate—information about the system doesn’t mean that all ESA-certified parts will. Since certification only requires correct implementation of the communication protocol, it’s possible the capabilities of ESA hardware will vary greatly from manufacturer to manufacturer. We wish the certification process demanded at least a base level of reporting functionality and accuracy from each component type.

That said, the enthusiast community will likely subject even the best ESA implementations to plenty of scrutiny, so it should be relatively easy to research which components make the most of the standard. We can only hope that enough hardware makers embrace the spec to make it the de facto standard for system monitoring. ESA certainly deserves it.