Ten Years Later: CUDA Succeeded Despite…

After posting a list of reasons why CUDA succeeded, it seems worthwhile to reflect on some of its apparent vulnerabilities, and why CUDA has been successful despite those issues.

CUDA Succeeded Despite…

1. Being Proprietary.

NVIDIA builds the hardware and software to run CUDA applications and has never licensed the technology to anyone else. Conventional wisdom in the industry holds that proprietary software technologies are doomed to failure – they don’t get shepherded well by a single owner, and they don’t gain adoption by developers. But by making CUDA software portable to everything from Linux to Windows to MacOS, and making CUDA hardware available in a broad range of products from SOCs (Tegra) to high end servers (DGX-1), NVIDIA has staved off the risks they incurred by going it alone.

2. Explicit Memory Management.

It’s every new CUDA programmer’s rite of passage: As if allocating and copying input and output data to and from device memory weren’t enough trouble, developers also explicitly manage shared memory to facilitate data interchange between threads.

Fortunately for NVIDIA, due to the First Law of CUDA Development, developers haven’t been fazed by the need to learn these idiosyncrasies.

3. Limited Cache Coherency.

Some rules of thumb have been internalized by hardware designers to such a degree that they are not so much sound engineering practices, but religious edicts. One such rule is that caches have to be coherent. All the time. In hardware.

But CUDA is pervaded by violations of this tenet. Device memory is not coherent with host memory. Shared memory effectively resides in a separate address space, so isn’t coherent in the same sense as an L1 cache. Constant and texture memory are not coherent with device memory, and when changes are made to the memory, the illusion of coherence is maintained via software invalidation. As with explicit memory management, developers are willing to treat the lack of cache coherency as a cost of doing business – as long as they get the performance they crave.

4. Limited PC market share.

Discrete GPUs only occupy about 25% of PC market share by unit volume, and NVIDIA competes with AMD in that space. NVIDIA’s limited market share helps explain why CUDA has had limited success achieving developer adoption in packaged PC software, even when there’s a good fit with the software requirements.

Put yourself in the shoes of an engineering director at (say) Adobe. “Port this code to CUDA,” says NVIDIA, “and it will run much faster… on 18% of your potential customers’ machines.” Even that proposition is sketchy when accounting for the costs and benefits of supporting the full range of CUDA GPUs extant.

But for vertical applications (think HPC), CUDA developers build data centers with thousands of identical servers. And for embedded applications (think automotive), every GPU in a given design win has identical properties. In both cases, developers have a fixed hardware target to develop against, and they get a compelling return on the engineering investment of the CUDA port.

In the longer term, companies like Adobe and Autodesk should be able to gain the same benefits by transitioning to cloud-provisioned GPU platforms.

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