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September 14, 2017

Why build a $7,000, 2TB graphics card? AMD explains its monster Radeon Pro SSG

by John_A

It’s rare to find a professional graphics card that makes its consumer counterparts look pathetic. Despite high pricing, cards built for pros rarely put gaming hardware to shame. They’re engineered for durability as much as sped.

The AMD Radeon Pro SSG is different. It uses AMD’s latest Vega core, pairs it with 16GB of second-generation high bandwidth memory (HBM2), and then throws in 2TB of integrated long-term storage made up of four Samsung 512GB SM961 NVMe drives. That dwarfs the amount of memory typically found on a graphics card. The Vega RX 64, AMD’s fastest gaming card, has just 8GB of memory.

Stuffing 2TB of solid state storage on a graphics card looks impressive on paper, but why would anyone spend $7,000 – yep, that’s how much it costs — to buy a card that has hundreds of times the available memory of its contemporaries? We reached out to AMD and spoke with Evan Groenke, head of product management at AMD’s professional graphics business unit, and Gabor Sines, head of video and professional graphics at AMD, to find out.

The Radeon Pro SSG: Evolving a monster

Although AMD is billing the Radeon Pro SSG as the first to “break the terabyte memory barrier,” that honor should technically go to the card’s predecessor, the original Radeon Pro SSG.

Released back in September 2016, it featured a Fiji core (the same found in the Fury line of consumer cards) and a terabyte of additional memory, provided by twin M.2 solid state drives (SSD) mounted on the card itself. Aimed at video producers working with 8K video, it showed impressive performance gains over traditional workstation cards, which are already powerful solutions.

The high-bandwidth cache-controller is what allows you to address lots of memory in a much more efficient manner.”

The new Radeon Pro SSG isn’t distinctly different on the surface, but does up the ante in several key areas. Its newer Vega core gives it more processing power and efficiency than its predecessor. That, according to Sines, allowed AMD to improve read and write bandwidth, and reduce the latency between the memory and GPU.

“Year after year, graphics cards have become faster and faster, but as AMD looks at the market and the future, we want to break down the barriers that have existed previously,” Groenke told Digital Trends. “Some of those have been focused around memory, in particular going beyond the gigabyte solutions available on most graphics processing units (GPU) today. We wanted to move into the terabyte range.”

Vega also brings the high-bandwidth cache controller to the table. It allows the handling of algorithms dealing with huge data sets through a better management of available memory – storing what’s important and ditching data that’s not immediately needed. For gamers, this could result in an end to frame stuttering, but in the entertainment and research sectors, it’s what makes the Radeon Pro SSG’s stack of solid state storage work.

The high-bandwidth cache-controller is what allows you to address lots of memory in a much more efficient manner.” Groenke said. “For all intents and purposes, we’re creating a hardware-based caching solution.”

Despite the improved hardware and capabilities of the new Radeon Pro SSG, it’s decidedly cheaper than its predecessor. The one terabyte SSG was priced at $10,000 when it first debuted, but the new version is being sold at $7,000.

“The original SSG was a developer kit, so it was a very low volume production run,” explained Groenke. “This is a mass-production product, so its targeted at a different price point, and mass professional consumers. We have taken the economy of scale, and are pricing it at a place where we believe it’s the right price point in the market.”

Groenke denied that the first-generation SSG was designed to test the water to see if there was a need for such a product. Citing one of his favorite movies, he likened the Radeon Pro SSG to Field of Dreams, stating simply that AMD knew, “if we build it, they will come.”

What’s the point of 2TB of memory?

While 2TB seems like overkill, considering nothing but the SSG’s predecessor comes close to that, Groenke wasn’t wrong when he suggested an interest already exists for such hardware.

“In the medical and entertainment sectors […] we have situations where they are using multiples of our workstation cards,” he said. “In some cases, up to four. They need a lot of GPU power, but they’re also dealing with a lot of data. In those scenarios, they can’t use any of the PCIE slots for storage. The SSG fits into the market very well because it can handle high-end processing and massive data sets.” In a follow-up discussion, and AMD spokesperson clarified the uses, saying “CT, MRI and anatomical scan visualization would benefit from SSG, particularly for large data sets of full body scans.”

8K video editing is another example of resource intensive work that pushes modern hardware to the limit. The first SSG demonstrated enormous gains in this workload, and the second generation will put its foot on the accelerator.

“With uncompressed 8K video editing, you’re looking at gigabytes and terabytes of raw footage that the GPU needs to get access to in a very fast and efficient manner,” explained Groenke. “That was one of the key use cases that we wanted to solve with a product like SSG, by physically co-locating the fast NVMe storage on the graphics board to give it quick access to that storage.”

Sines agreed, stating that “If you are building a visual effect and then render some CG content, you’re rendering in at least 4K. These individual images can be 250 megabytes each. If you do all these computer graphics, and you want to see how your data flows at 30 frames per second, that’s a lot of data to handle.”

By having the storage on the card, the system doesn’t need to wait for data from another drive. Everything is handled right on the card, which helps it handle enormous data sets, such as real-time raw 8K video editing, and developing high-end 3D models in Maya and Solidworks without compromise.

Theory Studios is said to be using AMD hardware for special effects work in the upcoming season of Amazon’s Man in a High Castle, and could end up being one of the first SSG customers.

Scaling for the future

Although the Radeon Pro SSG can already do things that other workstation cards can’t, AMD sees the hardware and its capabilities becoming even more expansive in the future.

“The SSG is more revolutionary than evolutionary at this point,” Sines said. “Two terabytes is our vision of where we see this product fitting. We can produce something that can have more, though.  Two terabytes is just the start.”

When we asked how high he believed the SSG could go on the newly released Vega platform, Sines didn’t seem to think there was any conceivable limit.

“We can produce something that can have more, though.  Two terabytes is just the start.”

“There is no design limit on the storage space. We can go four terabytes or higher, but even if we had eight terabytes, we can always find a scenario where that’s not enough. With the SSG, we are looking to scale in many directions. We are pushing bandwidth, latency, and storage barriers.”

The limits can be pushed further with a tactic hardcore PC gamers will be familiar with — linking multiple graphics cards together in one system. Although it’s not a feature that’s available right now, it’s something AMD is pursuing, and the company thinks it an inevitable future for the hardware.

“We can scale to multiple devices easily,” Sines told us. “Although I can’t disclose the numbers now, from a compute point of view, we are seeing much better scaling in multi-GPU scenarios that you would with gaming.”

AMD is confident in its ability to offer big performance gains because it has a close relationship with its software developers. It’s worked with Adobe in developing the card itself. Internally, AMD has created its own developmental engine called Pro Render. It leverages ray tracing to create photo-realistic images and models which can then be imported into more general game engines.

That’s part of AMD’s overall strategy to not only provide the hardware solution, but the software as well. Pro Render supports all manner of 3D applications like Maya, Solidworks and 3DS Max, all of which AMD claims can benefit from the SSG card. Making its own Pro Render work well with them and the card simply completes the package.

As the hardware improves, and software rises to meet its capabilities, we’ll only see greater things from AMD’s Radeon SSG Pro. It’s unlikely to cross over to gamers soon, though it will be worth keeping an eye on. We’re sure AMD will be ready to pounce if game developers find value in the idea.

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