||Working In The 3D Industry
October 15, 2002 Dave Barron
Summary: Have you ever wondered what it would be like to work for a graphics company such as ATI or NVIDIA? In our latest article, Dave recounts some of the experiences he has encountered in the industry. Everything from corporate security to the steps involved in building those 3D cores we've come to know and love is covered in today's article. Check it out!
| Introduction||Page:: ( 1 / 6 )|
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of FiringSquad or Gamers.com
Working within the 3D graphics industry is a career that appeals to many. In fact, many often dream about it as I once did. At one time, it was one of my primary goals in life, and one that I eventually achieved. However, with a great deal of expectations, I came in practically setting myself up to be let down. That isn’t to say I was disappointed or that I regretted it, but that I simply had placed my hopes too high. So what is it like? Is it all fun and games, or is there real work involved?
The graphics industry is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get. While rather cheesy, that is the best description one can give. This comes from not only the experiences I have gathered at my employers, but also the many stories that are passed throughout the industry. Some were both funny and greatly encouraging, while at times they were just down right frustrating.
The Wonderful World of Politics
Love it or hate it, politics are a part of life. Politics exist not only in government but also in business. All too often, who you know is more important than what you know when it comes to business. The 3D graphics industry is no exception either. Consider a few events that have taken place. In some places, names may have been changed.
Our first story involves a graphics company and two sound companies. 3D1 manufactured graphics chips and boards, where SoundA and Phils produced sound chips and boards. Certain persons high up in the 3D1 organization were heavily interested in diversifying the company by entering the audio market. With SoundA on the brink of going out of business, their purchase was being heavily weighed by 3D1.
On the opposite side of the coin, Phils had produced a high-end audio solution, approaching 3D1 with an offer of exclusive distribution at a very high margin. The deal consisted of Phils producing the part, selling it to 3D1 at a very low price and them packaging it and distributing it under the 3D1 brand name. So what happened?
Well those who were intent on the purchase of SoundA finally came to a realization that this option was not feasible. The cost was simply too high and 3D1 was suffering financial difficulty as it was. Thus, these executives, disappointed in their unfulfilled expectations, determined that it was not in 3D1’s interest to enter the audio market. The deal with Phils was then rejected and an audio solution was never released. And why? It was all because a few people didn’t get what they wanted.
SIDEBAR: Besides publishing countless articles, Dave also co-wrote an anti-aliasing white paper that is very well known.
| More Politics Stories||Page:: ( 2 / 6 )|
Politics in compatibility testing
This, of course, is just one example. Even worse is when you’re involved with a division of a larger corporation such as STMicrolectronics and perhaps VIA Technologies.
One person in their developer relations team was given a bit of grief over having games on his work system. For those who do not know, developer relations personnel work with game developers, testing software to ensure compatibility. His job, therefore, required game testing making game installations mandatory. Of course, the IT manager could not seem to grasp this concept, so the developer relations employee went and spoke with this person’s boss to get the situation cleared up.
The level of network restrictions made this situation even worse. The IT department had gagged the network of any game play, making testing over the network or on the corporate Internet connection impossible. A dialup account was then created with a separate phone line for testing. This, being far from ideal with the slow transfer rates, was all that could be done.
The Dreaded NDA
The Non-Disclosure Agreement is a key paper in every part of the technology industry. In effect, it says that if you repeat anything that has been disclosed to you, trouble is sure to come. The concept is that when partners, analysts, and members of the media are given information, they keep it to themselves. This is a great theory, but it is only a theory. In reality, people are given information and they run home and tell their friends. I’ve seen it happen countless times. So to be quite frank, NDAs don't mean jack. If this isn’t obvious, consider a few points.
Everyone can certainly remember when NVIDIA had issues with leaking drivers. Why was this happening though? Somebody was breaking a NDA. What about every time a person sees preliminary product specifications before they are announced? Somebody is breaking an NDA. Every time a product preview is posted by one particular site a few hours before everyone else? Somebody is breaking an NDA. It happens ALL the time and to such an extent that I know at the very moment I’m writing this, if I wanted to go find out information about future products of any given company, I could do it.
SIDEBAR: Dave is now working on an upcoming tech magazine.
| Security/Fanboys||Page:: ( 3 / 6 )|
Different companies address this issue in different ways. Obviously, in most cases little can be done. However, each company sets in place a certain level of precautions. For example, STB at one time had cameras in the parking lot and other places. They would monitor what was being taken to and from the building. When 3dfx took over, this went away.
Another company actually went so far as to post security guards at the building exits, to inspect the different materials that were taken. (That case being more extreme, at the very least.) Most can be expected to have company email and web access monitored.
Oh Those Fans…
One of the slightly more amusing aspects of working within the industry is watching the fans. Specifically, those everyone likes to call “fanboys” are of great amusement. I admittedly used to be one myself, but after working within the industry, my perspective has changed. Why though?
Well fanboys are especially loyal to their favorite company, sometimes to the point of hating the other companies and even the people that work there. Anyone who likes that other company is also hated as well. Here is some surprising news to fanboys out there: in the industry, we are all friends. We all hang out together, drink together, joke together, etc. It is a lot of fun and there is no bitterness at all. Work is work and fun is fun. We keep it separate and just enjoy life.
An example of the fun we have was at Meltdown, roughly a year and a half ago. I was there for Bitboys and getting to know everyone. A joke was started that when people would come up to me they’d say Oy (the company is actually Bitboys Oy for those who don’t know, with Oy in Finland being equivalent to our Inc.). Well here I am in the restroom standing at a urinal (ok, I know, that is way too much information) and in walks Dave Kirk from NVIDIA and yells out “Oy!” to me. From which we both get a good laugh. And then there is the whole bloody lip incident with another, but that was an accident and all in good fun, so I won’t go there (if you read this... still love you man :-)).
SIDEBAR: 3dfx Gamers was devoted to 3dfx enthusiasts, and was published by 3dfx themselves. You don’t see anything like that from 3D companies these days.
| Office Life||Page:: ( 4 / 6 )|
Let the Work Begin
At some point during the day everyone has to sit down and do some real work. Quake and Counter Strike have to be turned off and coding, paperwork, or testing must be done. This part of the day, while sometimes stressful, can actually be fun at times as well. Personally, nothing excites me more than discussing a new concept with a few other people. Sitting around, brain storming the best way to do something is exciting and when you’re finished, the outcome can give real satisfaction.
The hours are generally nice too. Engineers, for example, often work whenever they feel like it. Many bosses will have the attitude that as long as work is being accomplished and the schedule is kept, all is well. Of course, this has to be kept within reason. Engineers need to see each other at times for cooperative working (i.e. how the hell do we do this better?).
Marketing typically follows a closer 9-5 schedule. They have to work with people outside of the company, requiring their availability when others are working. Of course, there is a level of flexibility here too.
Your average person working in 3D graphics does it because they want to. While there are a few who, in one way or another, fell into the field, most have made this type of work their goal because they enjoy it. Some even obsess over their work, and sometimes those are the best engineers in the business. It is from people such as this that the industry allows for a relaxed atmosphere.
This was true with me, for example. Having been the original founder of Beyond 3D, my goal had always been to move from covering the industry to actually working in it. The same was true for one of Beyond 3D’s co-founders, Kristof Beets. He is now employed at Imagination Technologies, working in PowerVR developer relations. I, myself, am now perfectly content covering the industry as a member of the media or actually working in it, now that I’ve had a taste of both sides.
SIDEBAR: Anyone remember Rendition? They were one of the fathers of 3D graphics as we know them today. They were purchased by Micron in 1998.
| Building GPUs||Page:: ( 5 / 6 )|
Makin’ Those Chips
We have discussed some of what goes on within the industry, but what about actual chip development? Well, let us take a brief consideration of this. Each company has their own development methodology, but there is sufficient similarity in them that a brief overview will suffice. Again, this is just a rundown of the basics, and certainly not a detailed overview.
Chip development, in its earliest stages, is extremely boring. There is a lot of paperwork involved, with targets being set for fabrication, including determining the processor die size. Included in this is setting a target specification, which is slightly more interesting at least.
A product specification is a very detailed document containing all of the product details. This document overviews the specification of every unit on the chip, from something as basic as your Triangle Setup Engine (TSE), to the highly complex pixel shader. The functionality is drawn out and the targets are set. New technologies in compression, occlusion culling, and others are drawn out in this document as well, making it somewhat interesting at times.
With the specification in hand, the work begins. Coding, Coding, Coding and guess what? You get to do more coding. That is the name of the game here, so if you don’t like to code, run like hell. Different companies will take different approaches at this point. The typical design cycle is to code a C simulation of the chip for testing functionality and simulation purposes, followed by a conversion to HDL. Others might code directly to HDL, depending on how they operate internally. One company, for example, does all of their work in a C environment with an automated conversion to VHDL.
With C simulations intact, driver development becomes increasingly important. The greatest chip won’t save a company if their drivers suck, as we all know. Simulators allow for really SLOW testing of drivers, with the software acting as what will be the actual hardware. These simulations also allow for cycle accurate testing of the hardware, providing a way of removing any potential bugs before silicon is produced.
SIDEBAR: The 3D graphics industry is arguably the most volatile segment in the technology sector. NVIDIA is well-known for its 6 month product cycles.
| Chip-making (Cont’d)||Page:: ( 6 / 6 )|
From simulations to final hardware
After having completed the design cycle, the next stage of development is called place and route. This is where the chip is physically laid out, with each transistor being placed in the appropriate location. This process can take a bit of time, as each connection must be precisely positioned. Power must be adequately supplied to the entire chip and signal integrity must be maintained. With this completed, it is time for tapeout…in other words, its time to party!
Tapeout is an exciting time as the team’s baby is finally complete. There is excitement in the air and typically, there is a party to celebrate. Of course, the work is still far from over, but a major accomplishment has been achieved.
As everyone anticipates the return of first silicon, driver work continues, as well as additional simulation work for any potential bugs that may have been overlooked. While it is ideal to have all possible bugs cleaned out before tapeout, additional testing after tapeout is often advisable so any potential bugs can be repaired immediately. When silicon does finally return, everyone is excited but extremely nervous.
“What if it doesn’t work?” While few will say it, everyone is thinking it. While remote, the possibility exists. But when the bring-up board comes online, all that stress and anxiety is worth it. The baby is breathing and her heart is beating strong. Any potential bugs are located and generally fixed by a medal reworking, as opposed to an entire respin of silicon.
With final silicon on hand, driver development at an adequate point, and boards ready to go, it is time to ship. By this time the product is generally announced, with PR and marketing doing their thing. The boards go out and the company (hopefully) makes a few bucks. Now guess what? The process starts all over again. Oh how fun. That’s just how it goes I guess!
So that’s it. This is the industry. Like it? Then go work in it. Hate it? Then run for your life. What more can I say, I for one do enjoy it. With that said though, it is certainly not for everyone. Having been here though, I can’t imagine having what we like to call a "real job”, as there would certainly be no fun in that. So what do I really do for a living? Chat, surf the Internet and play games. The rest of it really isn’t work at all.
SIDEBAR: Does working in the3D industry still appeal to you, or perhaps you’d like to work on the opposite end of the spectrum – reporting on them! Voice your thoughts in the comments!