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CAD Tech News (#138)

19 Nov, 2020 By: Alex Herrera


With RDNA2, AMD Takes Its Turn with a New GPU Generation

The impressive introduction in gaming-focused products foreshadows the next generation of professional graphics products for CAD.

By Alex Herrera

In September, the big news on the visual computing front for professionals was NVIDIA's Ampere. The GPU leader released its first workstation-class product built from Ampere and geared to applications ranging from CAD to digital media creation and more. (See "NVIDIA Unveils Ampere-Generation RTX A6000 and A40, Affirming Evolving — and Aggressive — Path for its GPUs.")

NVIDIA dominates the space for GPUs in the CAD market, but it isn't the only vendor of consequence. AMD trails in presence among professional graphics markets, but it has by no means given up the fight, pumping out its new generations of GPU technology at a regular cadence as well.

And if recent revelations are any indication, AMD may have its best shot in more than a decade to take meaningful share in the market for professional graphics hardware. In late October, the company unveiled its first product based on the new-but-anticipated RDNA2 architecture, close on the heels of the Ampere release and foreshadowing what should come soon in competitive professional-class GPU products for CAD users.

The Current Radeon Pro GPUs Based on RDNA Architecture

Introduced in the summer of 2019 under the Radeon gaming brand, Navi was the first incarnation of AMD's current GPU architecture, RDNA, now driving the company's Radeon Pro brand GPUs for professional visual computing. Today, Navi/RDNA forms the silicon foundation for the mid-range Radeon Pro W5500 and W5700 GPUs, both launched earlier this year. (It's worth adding that the "mid-range" descriptor reflects my tracking of the market, though AMD refers to both cards as "high-end.")

At the top level, RDNA does not look dramatically different than the company's preceding architecture, Graphics Core Next (GCN), as both incorporate a similar array of Compute Units (CUs) supported by supporting cache, memory controllers, and graphics-specific functional units (e.g., rasterizer, geometry processor, and render back-ends).

The basic foundation of RDNA and Navi-based Radeon Pro: an array of Compute Units with supporting hardware. Image source: AMD.
The basic foundation of RDNA and Navi-based Radeon Pro: an array of Compute Units with supporting hardware. Image source: AMD.

RDNA2 Architectural Advancements and Potential Payoff for CAD

As the name suggests, RDNA2 doesn't represent a major departure from the company's fundamental architectural approach with RDNA; think of it more as an enhancement or kicker to the architecture. However, where such descriptions often imply minor improvements in performance and functionality, that's not the case with RDNA2 — at least not based on what AMD's shown with the first physical implementation of RDNA2, the gaming-oriented Radeon 6000 GPUs.

AMD's Big Navi GPU, with 6.8 billion transistors in 7 nm. Image source: AMD.
AMD's Big Navi GPU, with 6.8 billion transistors in 7 nm. Image source: AMD.

From a silicon standpoint, the first RDNA2 chip — nicknamed "Big Navi" — integrates 6.8 billion transistors on the same 7-nm silicon process technology as original Navi. What's new on RDNA2's architecture? At its unveiling, the company highlighted several relatively nebulous improvements: "high-performance Compute Units," "revolutionary Infinity Cache," "breakthrough high-speed design," and "advanced features" ... on the surface, not a whole lot of detail.

Based on the collateral the company provided at Big Navi's introduction, though, I'd push to the forefront the following most concrete advancements for Big Navi and RDNA2, the combination of which do support the company's fuzzier top-level claims. Read more »

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Alex Herrera is a consultant focusing on high-performance graphics and workstations.

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About the Author: Alex Herrera

Alex Herrera