The new Mac Pro's Afterburner is impressive. But it's even more revolutionary than it seems.
One of the most impressive parts of Monday night's WWDC presentation was where Apple revealed a mysterious optional component within the new Mac Pro that seems to have an absolutely incredible processing power. It's able to decode three simultaneous streams of 8K ProRes RAW, and twelve streams of the same codec at 4K.
That's impressive by any measure.
So what is this enigmatic device? It's almost like it's come from an alien spaceship and boosted our technology by several years.
The reality is probably far more prosaic, but no less significant.
It seems likely that it's an FPGA-based device. FPGAs are increasingly powerful programmable logic devices that can be configured at boot-up to process a specific algorithm. Imagine how fast a piece of software would run if you could design a hardware processor specifically to execute it.
Some FPGAs run software a hundred times faster than a CPU. These re-programmable devices are at the heart of many professional video devices. Atomos uses them extensively in their recorder/monitors.
What's really exciting here is that we're starting to see FPGAs becoming part of computer workstations. In other news, Intel bought FPGA maker Altera for $16.7bn in June 2015. In April this year, it bought Omnitek, a company with FPGA IP around AI and video processing.
Apple has worked closely with Atomos in the development of ProRes Raw. Atomos was one of the first companies to build Apple-approved hardware implementations of the original ProRes. It looks like the Melbourne company has essentially done the same thing with ProRes RAW.
We may be reading too much into this, but the fact that Atomos announced its 8K upgrade to the processing unit inside its new Neon HDR monitors on the same day as Apple revealed the new Mac Pro, makes us wonder whether it is in fact Atomos that has developed the Afterburner for Apple. We have no specific information about this but it does seem at least a possibility.
With such close cooperation between Apple and Atomos, it would seem like duplicated effort for Apple to design a ProRes Raw implementation on FPGA when Atomos already has finely-honed skills in this field.
On a wider note: FPGAs are surely going to be the next dimension in workstation processing. They're ideal for heavy duty repetitive work on complex algorithms.
To make an FPGA do something completely different, all you have to do is load up alternative code on boot-up. This would mean that in theory, Afterburner technology could be used for any number of previously very difficult tasks: maybe even taking over from GPUs in some areas.
Like decoding RED's raw format, for example.