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Nvidia's Chris Daniel - Software Product Manager - Interview


by Stuart Davidson - 11th Mar 2009
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Chris Daniel
(Software Product Manager)

Chris Daniel

DH: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us today, can you tell our readers your role and duties with NVIDIA on a daily basis?

Chris: Thank you Allan. I’m glad to have this opportunity to answer some questions for you and your readers.  I’m the software product manager for NVIDIA’s GeForce GPUs. My goal is to enable a great experience with our GeForce drivers, whether you’re playing F.E.A.R. 2, watching The Dark Knight in HD, or helping find a cure for cancer with Folding@home. Of course, it’s really our hard working team of software engineers here at NVIDIA that put in the extra hours to make sure these experiences come to life for our customers.

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DH: Can you detail CUDA to our audience in layman’s terms?

Chris: Sure Allan. CUDA is the parallel computing architecture in our GPUs. All of NVIDIA’s DirectX 10 GPUs were designed with this compute architecture. So how is this ‘compute’ different from what the CPU does? Well, GPUs are parallel processors, whereas CPUs are serial processors. Let’s try an example:

Say you are playing World of Warcraft and you come across 100 enemies. If you were a CPU, you would have to battle them one at a time (serially). But if you were a 100 core GPU (many GeForce GPUs have well over a 100 cores!) you would have 100 clones of yourself to battle 1 on 1 with your enemies. Think how must faster that battle would be!

NVIDIA’s CUDA GPUs are designed to be able to run these parallel tasks (many things at one time) exceptionally fast. That is why people all over the world are running large computational problems, from oil and gas exploration to video and image processing to physics calculations on CUDA. The speedups that developers are seeing compared to running the same problems on a CPU are ground-breaking. Not just 10x, or 20x but 100x, 200x, even 300x!

Also I want to clear up some incorrect information from one of your recent interviews. CUDA supports all open standards. Developers can take advantage of CUDA using all of the parallel computing interfaces from C to Fortran to OpenCL, and the new DirectX Compute interface from Microsoft. (In fact, Neil Trevett, VP of Content Development at NVIDIA chairs the OpenCL working group with direct support from NVIDIA’s SW engineering team and the first OpenCL GPU demonstration featured an nbody simulation on an NVIDIA GPU (Watch the YouTube Video)

NVIDIA is the only processor company to offer this breadth of open languages for the GPU and has a long history of embracing and supporting open standards.

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DH: What do you see being the next “killer app” for CUDA?

Chris: There are currently over 60,000 downloads of the CUDA 2.0 SDK released in Fall 2008.  Thousands of developers around the world are writing apps for CUDA. Unfortunately unannounced apps are propriety to the developers, but I will give you some cool examples of announced ones that are focused at GeForce users. First off, because I’m a gamer, I have to mention PhysX. PhysX adds new life to the PC gaming experience. Try Mirror’s Edge today for a taste of what’s to come. Another exciting application that is about to launch this month is called vReveal from MotionDSP. vReveal will bring "CSI-style" video forensics/enhancement to GeForce CUDA owners. How cool it that? No more posting crappy YouTube videos! Another exciting announcement that just came out at CeBIT is that Nero Move it is adding CUDA transcode acceleration. And as proven by the Badaboom Media Converter, transcode on NVIDIA CUDA GPUs is not only faster but also has much better image quality than anything else in the industry. There are also many more consumer applications shipping today and we expect the numbers to expand dramatically because of the scalable nature of CUDA.

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DH: What has been the easiest application to add CUDA support to, and which has been the hardest?

Chris: It’s tough to answer that question since it’s not NVIDIA coding the applications. There are thousands of developers working on applications to provide amazing speedups for their customers. You can see many of these on CUDA Zone: Nvidia.com/cuda. There are over 200 examples there.

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DH: Of all the effects possible with PhysX which do you think will be the most used and which provides the most benefit to the end user?

Chris: While PhysX has a very comprehensive list of simulation features, I would say the most commonly used one is rigid body simulation - that’s the bread and butter of gaming physics simulation. However, when we introduced GPU accelerated PhysX we also opened up a world of possibilities of other amazing simulations such as massive amounts of particles, fluids, soft bodies, clothing and hair. So users will start to benefit the most from both increased environmental interaction as well as lifelike characters. In the PhysX enhanced version of Mirror’s Edge, one of my favorite scenes is running past the huge panes of glass which are being shattered to pieces by bullets. The glass pieces even followed me as I slid down the side of a roof!

The PhysX team is currently also working on a new technology called APEX that empowers artists to quickly create fully interactive in-game destruction, clothing  and vegetation. APEX will dramatically reduce the time to create physics content in games and allows for automatic scaling of physics content to the performance of the platform, be it Wii, Xbox, PS or PC. Game developers will be able to make systems with high end GPUs automatically have more PhysX content generated for them! Stay tuned!

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DH: Which genre of game do you think will most benefit from PhysX?

Chris: When I first saw PhysX, I naturally associated it with first person shooters like UnReal Tournament, making all the destruction and explosions just bigger and better. This was partly because historically game physics have been limited by the CPU, but this has changed with PhysX. Lately I have seen some amazing effects in many other titles and genres – most of which are still under wraps. So I have to say PhysX can be applied to almost any genre – even 2D puzzle games like Crazy Machines 2 – it’s only going to be limited by the creativity of the game developers.

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DH: What differences are there in driver development for older operating systems such as Windows XP compared to Vista? A lot of users remain loyal to XP. How will the release of Windows 7 affect support for XP?

Chris: I have already seen many loyal XP users (those that skipped Vista) start evaluating the Windows 7 Beta. So far it seems like many are open to transitioning to Windows 7. It just feels zippier to me and they have worked out most of the complaints that people had with Vista. But our support for XP won’t go away anytime soon. It is really up to our customer base depending on the direction they take.

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DH: How have the development team found Windows 7 coding to be in comparison to the same stage in Vista’s development?

Chris: Coding for Vista was a completely new driver model from XP. Windows 7 on the other hand is an incremental driver model change from Vista: WDDM 1.0 to WDDM 1.1.  Instead of changing the overall driver model, Microsoft spent more time creating and exposing killer GPU features such as DirectX Compute.  Since we have been developing our CUDA architecture for the last 5 years; we were quite excited to get this built into the core of the Operating System as a foundation of GPU computing to come.  As a result of this and our very close coordination with Microsoft, our development team is really ahead of the game this time around. We are already code complete on the new WDDM 1.1 features added by Microsoft and just this week we released an updated driver v181.71 for the Windows 7 Beta users. Also, starting next month, each Vista driver release will have an equivalent Windows 7 driver release – same feature support, same great game support.

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DH: Will users see any difference in experience between Windows 7 and Vista when using the driver control panel?

Chris: There will be a couple of minor places where Microsoft has requested changes due to new functionality in their own control panels but in general users will see no difference between the Windows 7 and Windows Vista NVIDIA Control Panel.

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DH: What is the next big thing for GeForce drivers? Any new features you can detail?

Chris: Unfortunately we can’t talk about unannounced products but I will tell you that we have some cool new features coming in an April driver for GeForce customers.

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DH: Can you give us any insight into testing procedures and how you iron out problems with new drivers before release? What goes into achieving WHQL certification?

Chris: As I’m sure you can imagine, NVIDIA has a very large team of Quality Assurance Engineers that test our full lineup of support GPUs across hundreds of applications and multiple operating systems. This includes testing across multiple system configurations (motherboard, memory, monitors, resolutions, etc.) and testing all GPU-related functionality. The full test plan for a single driver is massive. WHQL certification for a driver means that NVIDIA has passed all of the Microsoft defined tests (days of testing), submitted the logs, and been approved by Microsoft.

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DH: Up until December 2008 notebook end users had to go through their laptop manufacturer to acquire device drivers, why was the decision made to now release notebook drivers at this stage?

Chris: As you mention, notebook manufacturers have historically only allowed graphics drivers to be offered directly from them. This was due to the fact that the drivers had to be customized in order to maintain unique implementations of dedicated hotkeys, power management, and smooth suspend/resume.

So what changed? Gamers’ know that they need regular driver updates to stay current with the best performance and compatibility for new games. This is why we have had notebook drivers on nvidia.com for the top gaming notebooks for a couple years now. But now with mainstream visual computing applications taking advantage of the GPU, all notebook users need and deserve access to regular driver updates. In response, our driver team has worked diligently over the past year to modularize our driver architecture and develop a unified driver install package that will not only work with laptops from all manufacturers but also maintain all of their specific model customizations such as hotkeys and suspend and resume functionality. We also worked very closely with notebook manufacturers to demonstrate the effectiveness of the drivers and to get their buy-in. They were excited to be able to leverage not only the huge investment that NVIDIA makes each quarter in improved driver quality, features, and performance but also NVIDIA’s The Way It’s Meant To Be Played network that ensures great out-of-the-box support for the new applications that are launched each month.

So far our NVIDIA.com notebook drivers have resonated extremely well with customers. There have been well over a million downloads of these drivers in just over 2 months!

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DH: Thanks for your time, anything else you would like to say to our readers before signing off?

Chris: You’re welcome Allan. This year has some really cool new technologies for the PC. I hope that all the gamers out there get a chance to try out GeForce 3D Vision. While that may sound like a marketing plug coming from me, I guarantee it will blow your socks off.
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