CAD Tech News (#152)21 Oct, 2021 By: Cadalyst Staff
NVIDIA Ampere and AMD RDNA2: Cutting-Edge GPUs for CAD
How these GPUs stack up for traditional 3D CAD use, plus let's see how they perform under rendering pressure.
By Alex Herrera
An oft-quoted cliché from decades ago spouted advice to computing IT shoppers: “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM.” Though arguably misguided, the point was that IBM — the widely acknowledged leader in sales, breadth, and quality of computing technology at the time — was the safe choice. You couldn’t go wrong buying from IBM.
In today’s market for professional-caliber GPUs, NVIDIA is yesterday’s IBM. Though it commands minority share, AMD gives NVIDIA a serious run for its money in the market for gaming GPUs. Not so though in the market for GPUs geared specifically for professional applications like CAD, where NVIDIA’s Quadro brand holds an overwhelming edge over AMD’s Radeon Pro. Based on my tracking for Jon Peddie Research, NVIDIA now commands over 95% of the market for discrete GPUs shipping in workstations.
Buyers tend to default to NVIDIA (transitioning from the Quadro brand to simply RTX), and without strong end-user pull for Radeon Pro, OEMs like Dell, HP and Lenovo, are more than content to simply ship the default brand. In fact, vendors like Lenovo have often offered nothing but NVIDIA options in its ThinkStation deskside workstations, and when considering only mobile workstation shipments, NVIDIA virtually owns the segment.
Why? It’s been more a case of NVIDIA winning the market than AMD losing it. AMD’s products have proven consistently capable, but it takes more than just proficient products to capture share, when the market leader’s wares are considered the default, like IBM’s of yore. NVIDIA would need to stumble, or AMD would have to deliver a knockout punch with a new generation of products to significantly change the status quo. And, that just hasn’t happened, or at least not to the extent to clear the necessary market hurdles.
The Latest Generations in GPU Tech for CAD: NVIDIA’s Ampere and AMD’s RDNA2
Of course, market fortunes can change, and if there’s any company that should have faith in that possibility, it’s AMD. On the CPU side of the business, it’s hard to imagine a vendor outperforming expectations more dramatically than AMD has done over the past several years. As covered several times in this column (most recently December 2020's column and January 2021's column in the context of the highly-competitive Zen 3 powered Ryzen 5000 product line), the combination of AMD’s development of the Zen microarchitecture along with its choice to tie its fortunes to the manufacturing capabilities of TSMC (Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corporation), has pushed its CPUs to match or exceed those of the market leader Intel.
Can the same resurgence happen in the market for professional GPUs? It always can, but it will take some work. The latest battlelines have formed, with NVIDIA’s new Ampere generation RTX brand products squaring off against the recently launched RDNA2-powered Radeon Pro GPUs from AMD. I dug into Ampere technology here, followed up with subsequent CAD-relevant products here, and more recently covered RDNA2 here. Still early in their respective product lifecycles at the time, I did not have the appropriate hardware to perform meaningful comparisons of any two RDNA2 and Ampere products, at least not in a context tailored to CAD computing. Fortunately, I was ultimately able to circle back and do just that, benchmarking CAD-relevant workloads on a suitable sample set of recent workstation-caliber Ampere and RDNA2 GPUs.
On the Ampere side are the new ultra-high end RTX A5000 and high end RTX A4000, along with the popular Quadro RTX 4000 from the company’s previous generation Turing class. And, representing RDNA2 are the ultra-high end AMD Radeon Pro W6800 and mid-range W6600. While the respective products don’t match up exactly with respect to current ASPs, there are obvious comparisons to make at several common market price tiers.
Specifications for recent NVIDIA Ampere and AMD RDNA2 generation professional GPUs. (Image source: AMD and NVIDIA).
3D Graphics Benchmarking Results Cast Some Light on the Relative Merits
Still, the essential measure of a GPU for CAD is how well it performs processing 3D graphics for visuals common to AEC, manufacturing, and design workloads. Though prospective buyers may look to the GPU to take on additional processing roles — from engineering simulation to rendering (explored ahead) — 3D graphics performance remains the crucial purchase criterion for the vast majority. Toward that end, I employ the best — albeit not perfect — standard benchmark focused on 3D graphics for professional applications: SPEC’s SPECviewperf, most recently updated to SPECviewperf 2020.
CONTINUE READING! Alex Herrera continues to show how these GPUs drive workstations and then tests them back-to-back. In addition, find out how evaluations based 3D graphics don’t show the full story. Read more »
Alex Herrera is a consultant focusing on high-performance graphics and workstations.
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