The Ada Generation Architecture and Technology
Big picture, Nvidia’s Ada Generation implements about 2X the raw hardware capabilities of the company’s previous generation focused on visual processing, Ampere — a figure now measured across three hardware metrics, not just one. As described in depth with the introduction of Turing (just prior to Ampere, the predecessor of Ada), Nvidia’s GPUs are allocating dedicated hardware acceleration not just for traditional raster-based 3D graphics, but for physically based rendering, via the tracing of rays through a scene. Prior to Turing, GPUs had most overwhelmingly been measured by the ability of its shader architecture (supported by things like memory and I/O, of course) to crank through conventional 3D graphics processing. But Turing’s introduction of both engines to specifically accelerate ray-tracing and machine learning — RT cores (with those two initials the foundation of the RTX brand) and Tensor Cores, respectively. And, it’s worth emphasizing that those tensor cores also serve an impactful role in speeding the resolve and refinement stages in rendering, as first covered in this column here.
Specifically, like all generations before it, Ada products are built from a foundation of not just one but several versions of silicon chips implementing the architecture. The first chip designed and fabricated is typically the biggest (most transistors and on-chip data storage and processing units) and most powerful, and that’s the case with Ada, as the flagship AD102 chip is the engine upon with the RTX 6000 Ada Generation add-in card is built.
Ada Propagates Across the RTX Product Lines for Fixed and Mobile Workstations
Nvidia has at least four more Ada chip derivatives already in production, trimmed down from the flagship AD102: the AD103, AD104, AD106, and AD107 with resources scaled down from the AD102’s 18432 shader cores to 10240, 7680, 4608, and 3702, respectively. In fact, one of those was recently tapped to create a lower-cost RTX add-in card sibling, the RTX 4000 SFF (indicating a card size optimized for Small Form Factor fixed workstations).
Built around the AD104 and available with a street price around $1,400 currently, the RTX 4000 SFF — like its 4000-class predecessors — sits just above the mainstream mid-range of the market, though I can guarantee its sales volume will show it’s far from some boutique SKU. The RTX 4000 SFF price will probably drift closer to $1,000 in coming months, while Nvidia likely adds some more SKUs below (such as 3000, 2000, or 1000) and probably a 5000 between the 6000 and 4000. Ada for fixed workstations should be available to the breadth of the CAD community in relatively short order.
Benchmarking the RTX 6000 Ada Generation — An Indication of What’s to Come for the CAD Mass Market
Of course, remember that while a simple blanket statement like, “2X the raw hardware performance,” will give a general indication of how much more real-world performance a component can deliver for the workloads the end-user cares about, that indication is by no means a definitive one. First off, the theoretical maximum throughput of any component depends on how well those internal hardware resources are being utilized. So while a device may have 100% more of the aggregate capabilities — like processing cores, cache, registers, for example — in reality that 100% might translate closer to 50% higher performance running with actual data and applications (and worth adding, I would deem a 50% measurable gain a very commendable generation-to-generation achievement). Second, even if the GPU can manage to run its visual processing at a 50% higher clip, that metric won’t mean anything if other links in the computing chain — CPU, memory, storage, OS, for example — are bogging down.
Still, with those caveats in mind, the best way to ascertain a new GPU’s potential, particularly in comparison to previous generations, is still benchmarking. When it comes to more traditional, interactive 3D graphics, SPEC's Viewperf (in latest version 2020) remains the go-to benchmark for CAD and other applications heavy in professional visual processing. It will generate real-time 3D graphic scenes typical in interactive design, using sample viewsets from applications including CATIA, Solidworks, Creo, Siemens NX, and 3ds max, pulled directly from real-world projects in manufacturing, design, engineering, and architecture.