The Grid VCA graphics server aims to replace expensive workstations by doing all processing for you.

Nvidia's GPU Technology Conference in San Jose saw the launch of the company's next generation graphics card technology and a frighteningly realistic CG face (see the video at the bottom of this story) – but also the debut of a server appliance that's designed to get rid of the need for an animation studio or post house to have the company's expensive Quadro graphics cards in its computers.

With the Grid Visual Computing Appliance (VCA), Nvidia isn't trying to put itself out of business though – as each box contains 8 or 16 of the GPU chips you'd normally have in a workstation's graphics card. The idea with the Grid VCA is that instead of each workstation in a studio or house having it's own graphics hardware, they access a pooled resource of graphics power whenever they need. This is allocated by the Grid VCA as needed.

The Grid VCA appliance (below) is compatible with Windows, Linux and Mac desktops and can handle the graphics part of applications from Adobe (including Creative Suite applications such as After Effects, Premiere Pro and Photoshop), Autodesk (such as 3DS Max and Maya) and Dassault Systèmes for up to 16 concurrent users. Graphics are processed on the appliance and the output is sent over the network to be displayed on a client computer.

This isn't a new concept; vendors such as HP offer blade workstations that sit in the data center instead of under the user's desk. But Nvidia integrates the functionality into a 4U box, instead of having separate blades for each concurrent user.

By clicking on an icon, employees can create a virtual machine called a workspace. The workspace is then dedicated for that user, and can be added and deleted as needed, Nvidia said. The extra performance can be used when transcoding video files, which converts a file from one format to another, or when creating high-quality 3D models, for example.

Nvidia didn't give much detail on the appliance's performance, only saying that each user will get "Quadro-class graphics performance." The Quadro family of graphics cards is what Nvidia offers for professional workstations.

The Grid VCA appliance will be available with either 8 or 16 GPUs, with prices starting at US$24,900 (around £16,400), plus an annual software license of $2,400 (£1,580). The maximum number of concurrent users they can handle are the same as the number of GPUs.

The larger configuration has 64GB of GPU memory and 384GB of storage, while the 8 GPU version offers half of those capacities. The appliance will start shipping in the UK and US in May.

Nvidia's CEO also showcased the company's Faceworks technology, which aims to make human faces realistic enough to jump over the 'uncanny valley' that makes technically realistic depictions of human beings look creepy, such as the representation of Angelina Jolie as Grendel's mother in Beowulf. Judge for yourself if they've succeeded in the video below.