Of CPUs, GPUs, and ASICs:
The Components That Make Cloud Gaming Production Affordable (or Not)

Jan Ozer

Jan Ozer

is Senior Director of Video Marketing at NETINT.

Jan is also a contributing editor to Streaming Media Magazine , writing about codecs and encoding tools. He has written multiple authoritative books on video encoding, including ‘Video Encoding by the Numbers: Eliminate the Guesswork from your Streaming Video’ and ‘ Learn to Produce Video with FFmpeg: In Thirty Minutes or Less’ and has produced multiple training courses relating to streaming media production.

If you’ve made it past the title, you know that cloud gaming platforms operate in a highly competitive environment with narrow margins. This makes the purchase and operating costs per stream critical elements to system success.

This brief article will lay out the major cost elements of cloud gaming platforms and cite some commercial examples of hardware combinations and stream output. We’ve created a table you can use to collect the critical data points while looking at potential solutions around the NAB show, or if you’re simply browsing around the web. If you are at NAB, come by and see us at booth W1672 to discuss the NETINT solution shown in the table.

At their cores, cloud gaming production systems perform three functions; game logic, graphics rendering, and video encoding (Figure 1). Most systems process the game logic on a CPU and the graphics on a GPU. Encoding can be performed via the host CPU, the GPU, or a separate transcoder like NETINT’s ASIC-based Quadra, which outputs H.264, HEVC, and AV1.

NETINT Technologies - CPUs, GPUs, and ASICs - diagram 1
Figure 1. The three core functions of a cloud gaming system.

Given the different components and configurations, identifying the cost per stream is critical to comparison analysis. Obviously, a $25,000 system that outputs 200 720p60 streams (cost/stream = $125) is more affordable than a $10,000 system that outputs 25 720p60 streams (cost/stream = $400).

Power consumption per stream is also a major cost contributor. Assuming a five-year expected life, even a small difference between two systems will be multiplied by 60 months of power bills and will significantly impact TCO, not to mention the environment or regulatory considerations.

Finally, normalizing comparisons on a single form factor, like a 1RU or 2RU server, is also essential. Beyond the power cost of a system, rack space costs money, whether in colocation fees or your own in-house costs. The other side of this coin is system maintenance; it costs less to maintain five servers that deliver 1,000 streams than 20 servers that deliver the same output.

Play Video about Hard Questions on Hot Topic - NETINT Technologies - CPUs, GPUs, and ASICs
Get the cost per stream with the proper mix of GPU, CPU, and ASIC-based VPU
Watch the full conversation on YouTube: https://youtu.be/xaSRL847eIs

Comparing Systems

Enough talk; let’s compare some systems. Let’s agree up front that any comparison is unavoidably subjective, with results changing with the games tested and game configurations. You’ll almost certainly complete your own tests before buying, and at that point, you can ensure an apples-to-apples comparison. Use this information and the data you collect on your own to form a high-level impression of the value proposition delivered by each hardware configuration.

Table 1 details three systems, a reference design that is in mass production from NETINT, one from an established mobile cloud gaming platform, and one from Supermicro based on an Ampere Arm processor and four NVIDIA A16 GPUs.

NETINT Technologies - CPUs, GPUs, and ASICs - table 1
Table 1. System configurations.

To compute the pricing information for the systems shown in table 2, we priced each component on the web and grabbed maximum power consumption data from each manufacturer. Pricing and power consumption shown are for the components listed, not the entire system. The number of 720p outputs is from each manufacturer, including NETINT.

NETINT Technologies - CPUs, GPUs, and ASICs - table 2
Table 2. Component cost and power usage, total and on a cost-per-stream basis.

From there, it’s simple math; divide the cost and total watts by the 720p stream count to determine the cost per stream and watts per stream. Again, this is only for the core components identified, but the computer and other components should be relatively consistent irrespective of the CPU, GPU, and VPU that you use. 

ASIC-based transcoders plus GPUs are the most cost-effective configuration to deliver a profitable and high-quality game streaming experience.
We are happy to share our data and sources so you can confirm independently.

As you walk the NAB show floor, or check proposed solutions on the web, beware of custom bespoke architectures using proprietary solutions (e.g. all Intel, all NVIDIA, all AMD). Each company has their demos that showcase technology, but not operational competitiveness. None of these systems can meet the OPEX or CAPEX needed for a competitive and profitable cloud gaming solution.

NETINT Technologies - CPUs, GPUs, and ASICs - table 3
We challenge you to get your own numbers and compare them!
Download the printable TABLE HERE

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