Ambric Delivers a Supercomputer on a PCIe Card

It wasnit long ago that a supercomputer in the teraops class required a massive room, a raised floor, massive power and cooling and the computer budget of the Sandia National Laboratory. In 2008, however, one can buy a dedicated graphics processor, with that kind of speed, the Ambric Am2045, about the size of a graphics card, for under $3,500. TMO went behind the scenes with Ambric at Macworld to find out more about this remarkable co-processor.

TMO was made aware of this intriguing product just before Macworld, and it got this reporteris immediate attention. We arranged for a more detailed briefing, so on Jaunary 18th at Macworld, Jay Eisenlohr, the Ambric co-founder and executive vice-president of marketing and business development and Leigh Anderson, the product marketing manager briefed TMO on the development and deployment of this remarkable co-processor for Macs and PCs. We spent over an hour chatting about the history and development of this product and concluded with an eye-popping demo of the co-processoris capabilities.

Jay Eisenlohr

It turns out that in the digital media work flow, such as transcoding, encoding, color corrections, scaling, visual effects, and MPEG operations in preparation for broadcast or high-definition disc creation, 32-bit integer operations are all that are required for the codecs. The founders of Ambric set out to design and build a custom, compute efficient, Application Specific Integrated Circuit (ASIC) chip that consists of 336 pure RISC processors, all on a chip the size of a quarter, that perform all these video operations and could be installed on a PCI Express card.

Am2045 Chip Next to iPhone

Technical Details

One of the key advantages to the Ambric design is that it reverses the trend of longer and longer time to market as one moves in the spectrum from a multi-purpose CPU (MPU) to a Digital Signal Processor (DSP) to a Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) device and on to a traditional ASIC. The Am2045 is a massively parallel processing array (MPPA) device that is software upgradable so that, for example, future improvements in video codecs can be implemented.

The MPPA doesnit have to run at the high speeds of our modern MPUs to do that either. The Am2045 is based on a modest 130 nm fabrication process and each RISC CPU runs at 350 MHz, leisurely by current standards. However, the aggregate compute power is enormous, amounting to about 1.2 trillion operations per second while heat is minimized. Depending on the benchmark used, this is 6 to 24 times the speed of a Texas Instruments C641x DSP.

PCIe Card Measures 5.0 x 2.7 inches

Another payoff in this low clock speed, high density RISC system is the power consumption. The entire board consumes only 15 watts while the chip itself has 15 times the MIPS/mWatt of the latest CPUs and generates one tenth the heat of todayis high-end 3D graphics cards. [The Am2045 is a 2D graphics processor, however.] The card will fit into 4-lane or greater PCI Express, non-graphics slots,

As a result, 1080i/30 MPEG-2 video encoding can be accomplished in real time and MPEG-4/H.264 encoding can be accomplished in 50 percent of real time. H.264 encoding is effectively two to five times faster than the best quad-core CPUs running the codes in software. This reporter watched a demo on a Mac Pro running Adobe Premiere CS3 and ADS Techis new Pyro Kompressor HD transcoder app. All that was required was to check a box, and what was previously a painfully slow software encoding suddenly flew. For professionals for whom time is money, this is a huge payoff for the investment.

For those who just have to know, Ambricis aDesigner development tools are based on the Eclipse integrated development environment and a strict subset of Java that looks a lot like the C language for developing efficient, massively-parallel code. In addition, TMO asked about future prospects of a floating point version for science and engineering. Mr. Eisenlohr said that the market potential for the current platform is so great that they have "plenty to do" right now, and that an FP version is not envisioned.

Some Background

Jay Eisenlohr told TMO that the key benefits of this design are a breakthrough in price/performance. The entire PCIe card to the end user will sell for under US$3,500. Not long ago, traditional HD authoring hardware was in the US$10K to $30K class. Professional transcoding and authoring workflows are included in the product. Most important to the Macintosh professional video community, the finished product will be available for Mac Pros running Leopard in Q2, 2008. The Windows XP product is expected in February. Look for a big splash at NAB in April and SIGGRAPH in August.

Ambric itself is a fabless semiconductor company founded in 2003 and VC funded. Today, they have 60 employees, and theyire growing. However, Ambric doesnit sell to the end user. Rather, as an OEM, they supply the system to companies such as ADS Tech (Pyro|Kompressor HD) and Sorenson Media who sell to the end user and who can, for example, customize and private-label the user interface and add their own product labeling to the card itself.

At Macworld 2008, Ambric and Adobe announced that Ambric is now an Adobe Premium Partner and the Am2045 can be integrated into Adobe Premiere Pro CS3 and After Effects CS3 Professional. Other end users who have shown interest include companies that build hardware for deep packet inspection, network security, radio, imaging, signal processing as well as the U.S. military.

Target Markets

Ambric is not stopping here, of course. On the roadmap are future chips that are expected to be in the multi-teraOPS range. With the small power consumption, software upgradeability, modest price, and seamless integration into popular video products like Adobeis, Mr. Eisenlohr sees a bright and profitable future.

The reason is that while US$30K is a price point only television or movie studio can cope with, the Ambric system at $3,500 puts serious video work flow capabilities in the hands of just about anyone who really wants it, and that will expand the size of their potential market enormously, a market estimated at over one million professionals and prosumers who use video editing and authoring software.


Whatis really intriguing about this product is that it utilizes some of our most important and favorite technologies, Macintosh, high performance computing, high-definition TV, open source tools and codecs in order to create a solution that millions of people will want to use to create video products that we, as humans, tend to be very fond of.

The Ambric and partner announcements were a major coming out at Macworld. The capability and philosophy of this product reminded me of what Steve Jobs has said in the past: "This is why we do what we do."