Earlier today NVIDIA announced that it would begin licensing its Kepler GPU architecture to 3rd parties. This is a sensible next step for NVIDIA, but an unprecedented one among the two remaining discrete PC GPU suppliers.

Note that what NVIDIA is announcing today is contrary to AMD’s semi-custom approach to SoC production. AMD is offering to build (semi) custom tailored silicon to customer needs, while NVIDIA is taking a more ARM-like approach and offering its GPU IP to 3rd parties for integration on their own. In other words, NVIDIA is looking to compete with ARM and Imagination Technologies rather than AMD or Qualcomm.

In addition to its GPU architecture, NVIDIA is now also open to licensing its visual computing patents to 3rd parties. The visual computing patent portfolio includes all of NVIDIA’s 5500 patents in the area, as well as CUDA.

NVIDIA views its IP licensing business as additive rather than in lieu of its current GPU and SoC businesses. Time will tell whether or not this ends up being the case, but it’s quite obvious that at NVIDIA’s current size it wouldn’t be able to go after all GPU markets on its own - enabling others to do so makes a lot of sense from that perspective.

It Doesn’t End with Kepler: Future NVIDIA GPUs to Be Licensed

I asked NVIDIA about future GPU architectures beyond Kepler, and the answer was pretty awesome: future GPU architectures will be available to licensees at the time of tape out by NVIDIA. Licensees can choose whether or not to adopt an architecture right away or wait for any potential revisions, similar to what ARM does with its cores (e.g. Tegra 4i uses a later revision of the Cortex A9 core). This move has huge implications. Theoretically a licensee could bring an NVIDIA GPU to market before NVIDIA itself, although that does seem pretty unlikely. What we could see however is a licensee introduce a GPU configuration that NVIDIA had no intentions of bringing to market.

The model makes a lot of sense and expands NVIDIA’s role in the computing world beyond its life in PCs. In the PC space, NVIDIA built discrete GPUs that system integrators (and end users) put in their machines. In the post-discrete world where SoCs rule the landscape, NVIDIA believes it can be just as relevant by doing the same. The difference here is instead of NVIDIA building cards out of its GPUs and selling them, the SoC manufacturer would be responsible for all integration. It’s the same playbook, just modified to deal with the new world around it.

Targets for Integration

NVIDIA is quick to point out that Kepler is its first mobile to high-end GPU architecture. Capable of scaling from smartphones (Logan/Tegra 5 next year) to supercomputers (Titan), Kepler is inherently very flexible and makes a lot of sense as NVIDIA’s first target for its IP licensing program.

Although mobile is an obvious fit for Kepler licensing, NVIDIA hopes its GPUs will be used in new markets as well. NVIDIA’s refrain sounds quite similar to AMD’s. Neither knows where the next big market will be, but both want to be prepared for it when the time comes. It won’t be too long before smartphones and tablets reach their own Ultrabook moments when performance becomes good enough for the majority of the market and attention shifts elsewhere. When that happens, NVIDIA (and AMD, and others) believe that opportunities for continued growth will appear in new markets (e.g. TVs, wearables, other connected compute devices).

The Compute Connection

Although it’s clear that the greatest point of interest with today’s announcement revolves around getting NVIDIA’s GPU designs and graphics IP into new products, at a high level perspective NVIDIA has made it clear they’re licensing their visual computing technology, and that this isn’t just a play for graphics. As part of keeping themselves open to new markets, NVIDIA has told us that they’re essentially willing to do whatever makes financial sense as far as licensing goes, with both compute and graphics on the table. So at the same time as licensing out their graphics technology, NVIDIA has also opened the door to licensing out CUDA and their other GPU compute innovations if the price is right.

This can lead to several possibilities, ultimately relying on who’s interested and what market they represent. At a most basic level, licensing an NVIDIA GPU will get the buyer CUDA – binary compatibility and all – thanks to the fact that this would be the same hardware CUDA already runs on. However in the new “anything is possible” licensing system of NVIDIA, CUDA could also be licensed out separately. Device makers who simply want to add CUDA support to their devices, either to take advantage of some of the runtime’s unique functionality or merely to enable easier porting from existing NVIDIA systems, can now license the necessary CUDA IP from NVIDIA. The GPU computing market is still very young with a number of competing technologies, but thus far based on actual usage CUDA has proven to be a front runner compared to more widely supported (and open) environments such as OpenCL, so while NVIDIA is still trying to bring further users onto CUDA, they also have a CUDA user base they can leverage today.

The most obvious avenue for any potential CUDA licensing would be HPC users looking for greater integration beyond today’s CPU + GPU setups we see in systems like Titan. However NVIDIA is also pursuing this with forthcoming SoCs like Logan and further products integrating their Denver CPU, so it’s not a market that’s being ignored by NVIDIA. On the other hand more novel uses of GPU compute in the embedded space, encompassing everything from TVs to automotive to traditional appliances, are areas that have been identified as potential growth avenues for GPU computing by NVIDIA and other GPU firms in the past, not all of which NVIDIA is directly serving right now. In all of these cases licensing can focus on CUDA, or even more broadly just licensing specific NVIDIA compute technologies that would be useful to include in these products; even obscure technologies like Kepler’s low-overhead soft-ECC implementation could potentially be of value as a licensed technology.

NVIDIA Can Now Go After Apple & Samsung Business

The cynic in all of us can point to NVIDIA’s struggles with getting Tegra 4 into devices and out the door as motivation behind wanting to license its GPU IP. Beating Qualcomm has proven to be very difficult. Even Intel has had a wonderfully difficult time of making its way into the mobile space. So is that what this licensing play is all about? To an extent, perhaps.

Had Tegra 4 been out and available, I think it’s safe to say that the SoC would likely have been used in at least some previous Tegra 3 design wins. Tegra 4i will hope to do the same for smartphones. I see no reason for these businesses to stop, but I think it’s quite obvious that there’s a huge gap between where the Tegra business is today and where Qualcomm is.

By licensing its GPU IP, NVIDIA opens itself up to additional customers (and revenue) that otherwise wouldn’t have considered it. I doubt Apple would ever use an off-the-shelf Tegra SoC, but NVIDIA can now compete for Apple SoC business alongside Imagination Technologies. Should Apple decide to one day drop Intel altogether and bring all of its CPU design in house, it now has a GPU vendor it can license cores or technologies from - just like it does with ARM. The exact same goes for Samsung.

Both Apple and Samsung have histories of licensing GPU IP from Imagination. NVIDIA now has a chance of going after that business.

The same could be said at the other end of the spectrum. The mobile SoC wars we saw unfold over the past few years are about to heat up in the server market. Where integration of high performance GPU architectures makes sense in servers, NVIDIA now has an offering to those that are interested.

GPUs Today, LTE Tomorrow?

NVIDIA isn’t officially announcing plans to license its Icera modem IP, but I’m told that’s the next logical step. NVIDIA is investing handsomely in Tegra 4i and its modem architectures, but similar to its GPU business - in order to address a much larger market, it will have to consider licensing that IP.

Final Words

Although unexpected from a timing perspective (we had no hint that NVIDIA was going to drop this on us today), NVIDIA’s move to license its GPU IP is very sensible. All growth markets where compute is concerned are moving forward with high levels of integration. For NVIDIA to not only remain relevant in the broader world but also grow with it, it must have a strategy in place for markets where integration is required.

Where those new markets are, and ultimately what this means for NVIDIA’s financials is beyond the scope of our analysis - it’s simply the right (only?) move.

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  • FearfulSPARTAN - Wednesday, June 19, 2013 - link

    They licensed IP because they had to, other than that the architecture is nothing like nvidias and is not related much at all. Reply
  • FwFred - Wednesday, June 19, 2013 - link

    Don't confuse patent cross licensing with actual IP delivery and integration from one company to another. Reply
  • yannigr - Wednesday, June 19, 2013 - link

    So, could we see an Intel cpu with Nvidia graphics on it? Reply
  • wumpus - Wednesday, June 19, 2013 - link

    I think Intel has made a long term commitment not to ship any remotely current graphics with any product. Probably some unofficial agreement with FTC/monopoly compliance division. Reply
  • testbug00 - Wednesday, June 19, 2013 - link

    Yes, but it would take 1.5-2 years to make it, and if broadwell is already being designed it means that it will not be there. It be a VERY LATE 2015 product at earliest (Unless Intel decided to scrap Broadwell and start over with Kepler/Maxwell in it)

    not to mention Kepler is not made for any node besides 28nm :/
    Reply
  • kukreknecmi - Wednesday, June 19, 2013 - link

    So Nvidia sees a financial problem in their future and this is also a big PR move to cover that too (not all about financial). So they want support for their Denver / Echelon software stack, they want extra money, spread Cuda.

    Time will tell that how much they are willing to licence their IP's. If they keep tellin "no i wont licence this to you " (etc. Cuda/Physx to AMD), it will be more or less like "Cuda is now opensource" lie / Hype (which it isnt, only at backend).

    AMD already using ARM IP's in its products, so Nvidia's IP's will be also interesting. Nvidia's willingness and pricing will tell us how much it will change things.
    Reply
  • nunomoreira10 - Wednesday, June 19, 2013 - link

    Knowing nvidia, the price will probably be proibitive.
    Knowing intel, they would rather keep evolvir their gpus then be dependent on nvidia
    Reply
  • chizow - Wednesday, June 19, 2013 - link

    Intel is already dependent on Nvidia IP for their GPUs, they pay them $250M annually for the privilege of using stripped down base level GPU IP. From Intel's perspective, why not pay more for the privilege of using a modern, world-class IP like Kepler?

    What if Intel raised their licensing amount to $1Bn for Kepler performance today? That would certainly put a damper on AMD's APU plans, as that's really the only area Intel is deficient relative to AMD at the moment. Win-Win for Intel/Nvidia, Intel wins CPU and GPU, Nvidia doubles their revenue overnight, profits/margins would skyrocket as well.
    Reply
  • iwod - Wednesday, June 19, 2013 - link

    Not Native English, But I was wondering, the article has multiple mentions of "very sensible". To me this implies this has been known (to them) or they would have guessed they are going to doing it. But then they say something about they didn't known this was coming.
    Wouldn't "makes sense", "sensible direction", "logical step" be a better word to use? Just Wondering.

    Back to Nvidia, Since the market, right now only has three group of players, Apple, Samsung, and Others. With Apple and Samsung taking 95+% of profits and 85%+ of market shares. And there are only 3 GPU IP Vendor, ARM, Nvidia and IMG. ARM GPU is ... Crap. The good thing about Nvidia is its IP can be used across Desktop and Mobile. Which Fits Apple perfectly, but i am not sure if Apple wants to put all its egg in one basket.

    Nvidia's Software Defined 4G Modem. I know Samsung, LG, and ST-Ericsson all have their Stack of 4G Modem, but none of them license it out. So as far as i know this is the only 4G Baseband available on the market. ( Correct me if i am wrong ) And Since Qualcomm 4G Baseband pack is the 2nd most expensive component on smartphones, it make sense for Vendor to actually make it them self or even integrated into their own SoC.

    Cant wait to see how this will unfold.
    Reply
  • vFunct - Wednesday, June 19, 2013 - link

    Apple is apparently developing their own GPU IP now, through the rampup of their Orlando design center.

    They're really pushing for vertical integration in-house - their own CPU core, systems architecture, etc..- no need for Apple to license NVidia IP.
    Reply

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