AMD's (Advanced Micro Devices) latest release of its FirePro R5000 GPU brings a cloud-based graphics boost, along with unparalleled performance, to the workstation. But, in a world where high-end gaming graphics cards bring 4 GB or even 6 GB of RAM and multiprocessors, are professional workstation video cards relevant? The simple answer is yes, but a breakdown of the differences between the two is needed to explain why.
Video card companies such as Nvidia and AMD are well known for their GeForce and Radeon line (respectively) of gaming cards that render 2D and 3D graphics at an incredible speed on one or more monitors. Their top-tier GPUs are geared for HD gaming at high resolutions using architecture that allows for video game companies to develop new titles using complex shaders (HBAO and SSAO, for example), anisotropic/anti-aliasing filtering, and tessellation, along with DirectX (a collection of APIs or programming interfaces) to render scenes and images in life-like detail. In recent years, these cards have been outfitted with an incredible amount of RAM (in some cases 3 GB and over) to handle the rendering power needed for today's games and video. Most midrange and all of the high-end cards are great at decoding and streaming HD media as well because the GPUs are designed to offload most of the processing power from the host CPU that, in some cases, is slower at processing the HD content.
When it comes to workstation content the gaming cards fall short of the mark, as they were not designed to efficiently handle content creation when using software such as AutoCAD, MAYA, or SolidWorks. This is where cards such as Nvidia's QuadroFX or AMD's FirePro line shine, as these were developed to handle those specific 3D graphic workloads. Essentially, both gaming and workstation cards are outfitted with the same GPU architecture between their respective iterations (for example, AMD's 2900 XT shares the same GPU as the FireGL V8600), albeit workstation cards usually feature an increased amount of ram due to the workloads they're subjected to. The main difference between these cards is that they are designed to use the OpenGL API over Microsoft's DirectX to render precision 3D modeling on a more in-depth scale over processing code for gaming or media playback.
AMD's latest release in its FirePro line doesn't only offer increased performance for CAD-type applications, it also takes the workstation line to a new level by giving the card remote capabilities. The FirePro R5000 (same GPU as the 7800 series gaming cards) allows multiple users to take advantage of a single card in much of the same fashion as a typical IP network. This is done through the cards built-in TERA2240 host processor that features PCoIP (PC over IP) protocols, which enables the card to send out massive amounts of pixel data to several users (up to four with a resolution of 1,920 x 1,200) connected to the network.
There are two drawbacks to using this card, the first being only one user can access the cards GPU power at any given time, meaning the other three clients have to wait until resources are free. The other drawback is cost, as the R5000 is priced at almost $1,000 making it an expensive solution for rendering.
The question remains: Can the bridge between work and play be achieved using a workstation card as a gaming card? Sure, you can flash the BIOS if the card has the same GPU and firmware of its gaming counterpart but you can expect a host of issues to come along with it. These can include loss of video acceleration, freezes/lock-ups, and even a "bricked" board, leaving you with neither a gaming nor workstation board. Research was recently done, however, on testing current workstation card offerings from both Nvidia and AMD regarding their gaming prowess that had some rather surprising results.
When used in a typical midrange PC (comprised of an Intel Core I7 2600k, 8GB of RAM on a Gigabyte Z68X-UD7-B3 motherboard) both AMD's FirePro W9000 and Nvidia's Quadro 5000 performed almost on par with current generation gaming cards. In modern DirectX 11 titles such as Battlefield 3, AMD's FirePro W9000 held its ground against the Radeon HD7970 on high settings at a resolution of 1,920 x 1,080, with the 7970 having a slightly higher frame rate of 97.1 to the W9000's 92.1. Nvidia's workstation offering, however, couldn't match AMD's FirePro performance with DX11 titles such as Crysis 2 and Dirt 3, but they did perform well on DirectX 9 titles such as Mafia 2 with the Quadro 6000 pulling in 49.1 FPS. (See more at a comparison of graphics cards from Tom's Hardware.)
It is indeed possible to bridge the gap between gaming and CAD design using just a workstation video card, just don't expect to do so on higher settings and resolutions over 2,560 x 1,440. As technology progresses over the coming decade, it's quite possible that both gaming and workstation cards will become merged together without performance drops encountered for either work or play. As it stands now there are still a few bugs to work out (primarily API languages) before this can become a reality, but if you have the money, AMD's newest FirePro graphics card certainly comes close.