GPU (graphics processing unit)

This definition is part of our Essential Guide: Everything you need to know about GPU virtualization
Contributor(s): Colin Steele

A graphics processing unit (GPU) is a computer chip that performs rapid mathematical calculations, primarily for the purpose of rendering images.

In the early days of computing, the central processing unit (CPU) performed these calculations. As more graphics-intensive applications were developed, however, their demands put strain on the CPU and degraded performance. The GPU came about as a way to offload those tasks from the CPU, freeing up its processing power.

A graphics processing unit is able to render images more quickly than a CPU because of its parallel processing architecture, which allows it to perform multiple calculations at the same time. The resulting performance improvements have made GPUs popular chips for other resource-intensive tasks unrelated to graphics.

Nvidia introduced the first GPU, the GeForce 256, in 1999 and remains one of the major players in the market. Others include AMD, Intel and ARM. In 2012, Nvidia released a virtualized GPU, which offloads graphics processing from the server CPU in a virtual desktop infrastructure. Graphics performance has traditionally been one of the most common complaints among users of virtual desktops and applications, and virtualized GPUs aim to address that problem.

This was last updated in April 2013

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