HP: The SLI Godfather?

Written by Michael Larabel in Display Drivers on 25 March 2006 at 01:00 PM EST. Page 1 of 1. Add A Comment.

Here at Phoronix we have been covering the Scalable Link Interface support under Linux since its launch with the inception of the 1.0-8174 display drivers back on December 5, 2005. While this NVIDIA SLI support can still be considered very much rudimentary compared against the Microsoft Windows support with the ForceWare drivers, which were introduced back on November 9 of 2004, there is no clear sight for how it will ultimately fair in the world of Linux. According to some information we have obtained from our sources and research, NVIDIA's motives for Linux SLI may largely dissent from the public opinion. In this article today, there are a few comments we would like to share about the big green manufacturer and their outlook on alternative operating systems.

When it comes time for a user to upgrade their computer hardware, and decide to go with a choice from a leading manufacturer of graphics solutions, software support is a given, correct? Wrong. Even though NVIDIA employs over 2,700 employees and its desktop GPU share position is 51 percent of the market (according to NVIDIA's reports) their alternative OS outlook certainly is not the brightest for enthusiasts and gamers, nor is it much brighter for workstation users. Of course, NVIDIA is not the only manufacturer to restrict their support for UNIX/Linux systems, but some consumers have yet to realize how truly money-driven are their support options. One of the technologies that game and workstation users alike have been after is the concept of using multiple GPUs in order to distribute the rendering load, and ultimately reach new performance heights. With that said, NVIDIA was first to introduce such a technology on the PCI Express front with SLI Frame Rendering -- Scalable Link Interface -- while ATI entered the game later with CrossFire. As mentioned earlier, NVIDIA's SLI technology hadn't reached the hands of Linux users for 391 days after the Windows availability, while Solaris users hadn't experienced the performance joys (or there the lack of) for 408 days.

What were NVIDIA's true intentions with bringing fourth this technology to other non-Windows platforms? Well, Hewlett-Packard appears to be the largest company that can be attributed to this newly founded support. According to our sources from multiple companies, it seems that Hewlett-Packard, or commonly known as HP, has been the largest customer for this undertaking. Hewlett-Packard has allegedly contributed an unknown amount of money, or hardware purchases, to NVIDIA in exchange for Linux SLI. Of course, it is not common in this capitalistic world to do no service free, nor do NVIDIA's competitors such as ATI provide much support for free, as it's simply a matter of business practice. Why did HP seek this support under Linux? With a great deal of workstation and professional users relying upon Linux whether it be movie production or OpenGL rendering, Hewlett-Packard couldn't resist but to supply a SLI oriented workstation. The most notable of these workstation machines is the HP xw9300, which has the official support for either running Microsoft Windows or Red Hat Enterprise Linux WS 3/4. The HP 9300 "Dual" models utilize dual AMD processing cores as well as dual graphics in the fashion of SLI. The available graphic solutions include the NVIDIA Quadro NVS 285, FX 540, FX 1400, FX 3450, and FX 4500.

If Hewlett-Packard paid NVIDIA for the Linux SLI development, how did Solaris SLI end up existing? According to a reliable ex-Sun employee, Sun Microsystems knew the Linux port was in development stages and ultimately waited for the correct time to convince NVIDIA that SLI would be mutually beneficial. Due to the similarities in the code for both Linux and Solaris proprietary drivers, this support was reportedly done free. But of course, Sun already buys the hardware for Solaris. According to the same source, the relationship between these two companies can be defined as "tenuous at best". The same person had also compared the Linux and NVIDIA relationship as being "lucky" with a relationship comparable to id Software's gratitude toward Linux and producing native game ports. When it comes to Sun Microsystems machine that ships with Solaris and Scalable Link Interface is the Sun Ultra 40 Workstation, which also relies upon NVIDIA's Quadro series and AMD Opteron processors.

Another topic for pondering is the possibility that SLI may, or may not, ever see the official light of day under FreeBSD. While NVIDIA's code is similar between Linux/Solaris/FreeBSD, there seems to be no corporate customer at this point -- or even the appropriate lobbying for a free port. It is over three months since Linux and Solaris SLI have co-existed and to this point we have heard no official word from NVIDIA representatives in regards to this matter. Inside the FreeBSD i386 user's manual, the same SLI page as what was found in the Linux and Solaris manuals can be found, but this support has yet to be mentioned in their official release notes.

As was shared with our 1.0-8174, 1.0-8178, and most recently the 1.0-8751 Beta driver testing, the Linux SLI support remains very abecedarian compared against the routine updates with the Windows ForceWare counterpart. Some of the present problems that plague the NVIDIA Linux drivers when it comes to the SLI area is running at different resolutions with the XVidMode extension (rather than the XRandR extension workaround), no dedicated control panel/profile manager, NVIDIA accelerated Linux driver set not automatically detecting the optimal SLI settings, and simply sub par performance in both OpenGL professional and consumer related activities. With the HP requirements probably met, NVIDIA Linux engineers likely have no large incentive for improving the quality of their SLI capabilities. Of course, gaming and other items on the agenda of enthusiasts often take a back seat compared against the bigger wallets of Linux-friendly corporations and the workstation market. From NVIDIA's XDevConf February 2006 presentation, all references made are to the workstation environment, and no mentions of their consumer dealings. Even so, Hewlett-Packard should certainly be applauded for their Linux efforts thus far, and certainly when it comes to these SLI dealings.

We had questioned NVIDIA about this matter, but the only response we had ever heard back on that topic was informing us the drivers were posted in late 2005... Well of course we at Phoronix are familiar with the drivers being posted in late 2005 -- seeing as we provided same-day coverage and other various articles. Originally, they were going to target these Rel80 Linux display drivers (with SLI support) towards the end of October, then had slipped to November, and simply had not appeared until early December.

What is the status of FreeBSD and SLI functioning together? When can Solaris and Linux users ever expect to find definitive performance gains? What all was involved with this Hewlett-Packard and NVIDIA SLI deal? What sort of "deals" can we expect to see from NVIDIA in the future? Will Scalable Link Interface software support continue to remain rubbish? On the contrary, will ATI's multi-GPU CrossFire ever reach the alternative OS market? Will the Linux drivers continue to lag behind the Windows candidate -- as long as there is no large sugar daddy to supply NVIDIA with the needed purchases? What are NVIDIA's true intentions for the alternative operating system arena? What other NVIDIA features are lacking from the Linux drivers due to the lack of any large customers?

The investigation continues...

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Michael Larabel

Michael Larabel is the principal author of Phoronix.com and founded the site in 2004 with a focus on enriching the Linux hardware experience. Michael has written more than 20,000 articles covering the state of Linux hardware support, Linux performance, graphics drivers, and other topics. Michael is also the lead developer of the Phoronix Test Suite, Phoromatic, and OpenBenchmarking.org automated benchmarking software. He can be followed via Twitter, LinkedIn, or contacted via MichaelLarabel.com.