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December 15, 2011

Emerging Companies Ride Wave of GPU Computing

Nicole Hemsoth

During the NVIDIA’s GTC Asia event this week in Beijing, the company put a set of emerging companies under the spotlight to showcase their use of innovative high performance computing and GPU-driven technologies.

While there are any number of startups or small but deserving companies that crop up each year to aim for the HPC market, we wanted to point to NVIDIA’s selection of emerging companies this week as they reflect some of the broader trends in the GPU computing space—namely, advancement of GPU acceleration into a wider set of markets and aimed at emerging industries that straddle the borders of traditional HPC or offer new capabilities to existing HPC industries, especially the rendering and entertainment sectors.

What is most interesting about the selections for GTC Asia’s Emerging Companies Summit is not necessarily the company status as a startup with a unique take on GPU use. In fact, many of those picked are established, fully operational companies with years under their belts.

The theme this year seems to be that all selections are companies that have been holding onto important technologies for a few years, but are only now able to find a high-value market for those technologies. This is because of a rapid convergence in many areas NVIDIA touches; namely, mobile, cloud and to a lesser extent (sorry, folks) HPC.

At the top of the summit list this week, however, was a company that has relatively deep roots in HPC verticals, particularly in oil and gas. Acceleware was featured as an emerging company, even though they do not necessarily define “emerging” in the traditional startup sense. The Canadian company has an established history beginning in 2005 with their first foray into the electromagnetic simulation market, a focus that later extended to include providing hardware acceleration to the seismic migration market (fitting due to their location in the heart of Canadian oil and gas country). They now serve a number of areas in engineering, finance and other HPC verticals.

In addition to their roots in a few key HPC verticals from inception, the company went public back in 2006, followed by a $3 million boost from NVIDIA the next year.  While the small company may not be “emerging” in the bootstrapped sense one might expect, they are being led out of the shadows because the technologies they’ve been honing over the recent decade are in line to finally meet a market mature enough to adopt software-based acceleration in far larger numbers. In short, as GPU clusters find their way into more enterprise shops, the demand for their offerings could subsequently increase.

As an emerging company, some might suggest that they are poised to meet to the multicore era and age of massively parallel GPU architectures in a way few companies are, a key driver behind their position as a featured company this year. 

Acceleware is not a one-trick pony when it comes to HPC. In addition to offering CUDA and OpenCL training, GPU cluster solutions (with NVIDIA GPUs), and general consulting for the core industries they serve, their range of ISV partnerships allows them to offer accelerated solvers for oil and gas and beyond.

While Acceleware might represent the emerging company to suit oil and gas and engineering markets, many of NVIDIA’s other choices catered directly to the rendering and video-driven end of their GPU business. For instance, both ZANQI Technology Development Co. Ltd, which provides a 3D internet-based and GPU-boosted rendering software as a service offering and GPU code transplanting service as well as video delivery company QIYI tap into the emerging markets driven forth by the convergence of mobile and cloud and the need for sophisticated rendering capabilities delivered rapidly across a range of devices.

Design and engineering, a key bread and butter maker for NVIDIA, had its own star this week in the form of RTP startup GeoMagic. This emerging companies selection provides 3D software for reverse engineering digital models out of physical objects for the likes of Ford, Harley Davidson, Fisher Price and a number of other household name product manufacturers across the automotive, aerospace, medical device and entertainment markets. The company’s Geomagic Studio, Qualify and Wrap packages allow companies to reverse engineer everything from archeological artifacts to auto parts so realistic, accurate digital models can be quickly simulated, tested, inspected and shared.

Aside from the Chinese majority in attendance at the show, many of the local press from around Beijing seemed present to tune in for news about the consumer GPU market. Even Jen-Hsun Huang’s keynote indicated an emphasis not just on GPUs for HPC, but their application in entertainment, consoles, media and a range of devices. While GPUs for HPC tend to take center stage at GTC events, this year offered plenty for attendees with keen eyes on the next steps NVIDIA will take in the consumer market related to GPU computing.

A handful of emerging companies picks this year echoes other angles of the consumer side of the NVIDIA business. And interestingly enough, the GPU maker can’t seem to get enough of mentioning two companies in this domain. Both Ubitus and MirriAd were featured during the Emerging Companies Summit in 2009, but it might be that like Acceleware, their technologies were ripe—but the market was not quite ready to pick them up yet. As mobile and cloud have evolved together, the time might be right for technologies like London-based MirriAd’s seamless advertising directly into video content, for instance, to find their way to the masses.

Startup Ubitus, Inc., which is based in Taipei, reflected the mobile-cloud convergence back in 2009 but the time might not have been right for users to take advantage of their fixed-mobile convergence applications until more recently with the explosion of mobile devices and smartphones that required more computing smarts. In essence, the company enables rich media across almost all types of devices with emphasis on high definition video delivery across several platforms.

If the criteria for being selected as an emerging company is morphing into a list of “companies with great technologies no one could use en masse until Trend X emerged” then NVIDIA has been scoring well. A number of its picks from as far back as 2009 were directly foretelling new directions in high performance computing applications, the rise of cloud computing, and for that matter, the mobile cloud with its need for rapid video and content delivery.

It will be interesting to see what the next summit brings; a handful of fresh-faced startups that will foretell of trends no one sees yet—or a list of the same set we saw this year with minor variations. We’ll find out in May during the next GTC event, this time in San Jose, California.