Alienware Video Array Technology Interview

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posted 6/7/2004 by The GN Staff
other articles by The GN Staff
At this year’s E3, Alienware introduced their new Video Array technology. The new video technology, which will be built into Alienware’s proprietary X2 motherboards, will provide gamers with an expected 50% increase in gaming performance by utilizing two video cards. John and Charles had an opportunity to talk with Brian Joyce the Director of Marketing for Alienware to talk about the new technology.

GamingNexus: How did the idea for this come along?

Brian Joyce: Several years ago (this is several years in the making). The founders of Alienware are big time gamers (still are), and they realized a little while ago that the latest and greatest games were always hardware limited. They began back then looking for ways to remove that hardware limitation and were sometimes frustrated as consumers being tied to the technical roadmaps of the larger industry players, be it processor, memory, video, etc. So, the concept itself is fairly simple but the execution wasn’t and they decided to invest in the development because of the experience they felt it would bring to the customer.

GamingNexus: How long have you been working on the idea for Video Arrays?

Brian Joyce: We’ve had a dedicated team on it for well over two years.

GamingNexus: Was this something that you couldn’t do with AGP or had you considered doing something with AGP?

Brian Joyce: We actually had a working prototype with AGP. But as soon as it became clear that PCI Express was going to become the industry standard, we had to start re-working it for PCI Express.

GamingNexus: Can you describe how the Video Array system works?

Brian Joyce: In a classic sort of graphics architecture, the game or application speaks to the video card drivers which then tell the video card what to do and then outputs to a monitor. With the video array, we have a layer of Alienware developed software that sits between the application and the video card drivers and parses out instructions to each of the video cards individually and what this allows us to do is to have the top portion of the screen drawn by one video card while the bottom portion is drawn by another. This software keeps everything in sync and actually allows us, on a frame by frame basis, to dynamically load balance each video card so that if one is taking longer to draw it’s portion of the screen than the other then we can adjust the load to each video card and optimize on the fly.

GamingNexus: Does it mean that the one portion will get smaller or will more cycles be sent through the card that is under load?

Brian Joyce: It’s actually by proportion. For example, more first person shooters are a little more graphic intensive on the bottom portion of the screen because there are more enemies and things going on down there. So, the card drawing the top half has less to do than the card drawing the bottom half. So, if that’s the case, we would increase the portion that the top video card was drawing to balance out the load.

GamingNexus: So instead of the rendering line being at the halfway point would actually shift down?

Brian Joyce: Exactly. So, instead of being 50-50, it becomes 60-40 or 70-30, etc. It happens on a frame by frame basis. Since video games are essentially like a movie where you have multiple frames per second, the fact that we are doing this by frame means that your eye will never see the adjustment.

GamingNexus: This is kind of a stupid question but can you use different speed cards or do both cards have to be exactly the same?

Brian Joyce: The answer to that is that they would have to be from the same manufacturer since the drivers would have to be the same. It is ideal to have them paired, i.e. the same card. Theoretically, you could use two different cards but one of them would be constantly making up for the other one because one of them is faster than the other. So, if the image was equally loaded from top to bottom, the fastest card would end up drawing more of the screen than the slowest card.

GamingNexus: Your announcement and demonstration of the Video Array was a pretty big announcement at E3. How has the community responded to the technology? What about from the major game developers?

Brian Joyce: The community and the press that saw it were extremely impressed. There’s a sense of disbelief from those who didn’t see it because the concept has been attempted before, not in this particular execution, but the multiple video card/one image thing has been attempted before but not executed very well. From major game developers, especially those who saw it at E3, they are extremely excited about it and want to know how soon they can get their hands on one so they can start coding to take advantage of that capability.

GamingNexus: The technology seems a little similar to 3DFx’s old SLI configuration except for rendering every other line, you do the rendering in halves. How does that old 3dfx technology compare to your technique?

Brian Joyce: SLI stood for Scan Line interface where each card drew every other line of the frame and my understanding was that the major challenge was to keep the image in sync. If one line’s longer than another, then tearing, artifacts, and keeping the two cards in sync was a real issue. The benefits of doing it half and half is we can take advantage of the load balancing and the synchronization challenge can be overcome.

GamingNexus: The best ideas often get copied by competitors. Now that you’ve let the cat out of the bag on Video Array, do you feel there’s going to be major motherboard manufactures trying to develop their own video array technology?

Brian Joyce: Certainly, we would expect people who will try. Remember that the video array and the X2 motherboard are both multiple patents pending technologies. So they will have to do it in a way that doesn’t take advantage of what they’ve learned from us. I would imagine that yes, they will try and it remains how successful they will be and how quickly they can be successful if at all.

GamingNexus: About the heat issues, you’ve developed your own cooling system. Could you talk a little about that?

Brian Joyce: The liquid cooling technology from Alienware is specifically designed to cool two CPU’s and two video cards, which isn’t something that most cooling solutions have to deal with. It uses a specially formulated liquid inside for heat transfer. It uses gold plated, pure copper heat sinks. There’s a high volume/low noise fan. There are three different speed controls on the fan unit itself and it has been integrated into our next generation chassis. That’s the solution in a nutshell.

GamingNexus: Have the final specs for the hardware been determined yet ?

Brian Joyce: The actual final build materials have not been set, yet. Remember, what we’ve demonstrated so far has been an alpha or beta build and the X2 motherboard was only available just prior to E3, so there’s a lot of work that has to be done to get it as stable and reliable as it needs to be for consumer use.

GamingNexus: Are there plans to explore an AMD solution with the Video Array technology?

Brian Joyce: Yes, absolutely. The reason that the X2 motherboard is Intel based is simply that their roadmap was PCI Express capable first. Obviously, we have to design our own board to get the two PCI Express graphics slots onto it. But, absolutely, if we received positive feedback on the video array and the X2 motherboard, then we will be looking to do it with an AMD solution as well.

GamingNexus: I’m kind of looking forward to one with dual Opterons.

Brian Joyce: Yeah, exactly. There are some really exciting applications for this kind of thing. The potential it has to change your experience, especially in gaming or in rendering, is what I’m looking forward to most.

GamingNexus: What were some of the early obstacles you faced in developing the Video Array technology? What was one that you thought would give you trouble but found it pretty easy to overcome? What’s been the hardest thing to get around?

Brian Joyce: I think from the perspective of the development team, there were quite a few obstacles. In the beginning, it was anticipated that once we brought the concept to our industry partners and got them excited about the concept that it would be a joint, collaborative effort. However, for whatever reason, they didn’t see the value in making the attempt. It wasn’t in line with their current road maps so the first challenge was making the decision to do it ourselves and to make the investment in the research and design. Then, of course, finding out that despite the fact that PCI Express was going to be available there was no such thing as a dual slot PCI Express graphics motherboard and having to go ahead and design our own there, too. And then again, the actual literal system engineering aspects of getting two very powerful graphics cards into one chassis and worry about power, heat, noise, and all of those aspects. So it seems to me that over the course of time here, that there has been nothing but a string of obstacles. It’s pretty impressive that we’ve gotten it to this stage and are getting ready to make it commercially available.

GamingNexus: With this announcement, you also introduced a new line of desktops, the ALX line. How will the new line differ from existing Area-51 and Aurora desktops?

Brian Joyce: The ALX line is aimed very carefully at our hardcore gamers, our very high performance users. So the ALX Line will feature things like factory performance enhanced hardware and because of that, it will have the liquid cooling technology in it. It will have a series of very customizable details. These will be an extremely personalized customer experience, both in terms of sales and our customer support. We will offer the latest and greatest technologies on the ALX line first. So we anticipate where the early adopters go for their Alienware system.

GamingNexus: With the liquid cooling solution, how about people who like to go to LAN Parties, how comfortable/safe will the system be to move?

Brian Joyce: It’s certainly a primary concern for us in the development of the solution. We obviously need to fill it and ship right? So they sometimes get handled extensively in the shipping process so it’s entirely sealed. They are saying it will only have to be filled every three years. It’s completely sealed so there won’t be any issues moving it around.

GamingNexus: Let’s say three years go by, how do users go about re-filling it? Do they have to send it in or can users do it themselves?

Brian Joyce: I believe that you can do it yourself. The liquid doesn’t come anywhere near a component so you can pull the heat sinks off of the CPU or GPU and there’s never any issue of upgrading.

GamingNexus: Do you think the video array or X2 technology will ever be available beyond the ALX line?

Brian Joyce: We would like to see it become a standard where instead of asking what type of video card you have in your system, you’re asking how many video cards you have in your system. If the demand for it reaches what we hope, then you will see the video array available in our standard Alienware high-performance systems.

GamingNexus: Could the system theoretically scale to two video cards or is that a limitation?

Brian Joyce: Theoretically, it will scale beyond two. It’s more an issue of bandwidth talking between the cards and then getting a solution that would allow for four, six, eight cards to plug into a single motherboard or allow enough bandwidth between multiple systems to take advantage of the pairs of video cards working together. So, yes, you could theoretically setup something that was like a graphics GPU rendering farm.

GamingNexus: Do you think the solution will have uses outside of gaming (such as render farms)?

Brian Joyce: It’s funny that you should ask that. The day after we announced it while we were still at E3, we were contacted by a federal agency that had an interest in several hundred systems talking to one another.

GamingNexus: Just so we know how much plasma we’ll have to sell, has pricing been determined yet?

Brian Joyce:No, but you can anticipate that they will be on the higher end of the scale. You’re looking at potentially two CPU’s, two video cards, beefed up power supply, the water cooling and all of that other good stuff. I imagine that these systems will be in excess of $4,000.

GamingNexus: I’m going to have to take out a home-equity loan to pick one of these up.

Brian Joyce: There’s a business case/value proposition for buying it up front and having the capabilities to experience games and other 3d applications the way they were meant to be enjoyed right from the get-go and not having to upgrade every three to six months.

GamingNexus: Did you see the Tek-panel display while you were there? Have you ever thought of partnering with them and putting an X2 system in one of those cases?

Brian Joyce: Absolutely. No, we haven’t but maybe you’re not aware that we will be launching a digital home system which is an all in one and it is based on the Tek-Panel.

John and Charles would like to thank Brian for taking the time to talk to us about this and ignoring all of the drooling noises John was making in the background.