The Great GPU Shortage of 2021: A Retrospective
In January 2021, the world of Great GPU Shortage graphics cards changed forever. At the time, I was just a student looking to build my first gaming rig and willing to pay any price to get my hands on some new GeForce GTX 2080s, but all I could find were GTX 1080s and GTX 1070s everywhere I looked. Prices were being jacked up by retailers hoping to make a profit on the small supply of GPUs on the market, and it seemed that demand had finally begun to outstrip supply as GPUs were failing to meet projected sales in many high-end markets like finance, scientific research, and retail computing.
Why did this happen?
This GPU shortage was caused by the massive demand for computer graphics processing units during the cryptocurrency boom of late 2017. The problem is that while demand rose exponentially, supply did not – and manufacturers were unable to keep up with increased global demands for gaming GPUs.
This led to scarcity and inflated prices that, while they eased recently in Great GPU Shortage February of this year, saw the price of GPUs rising as high as 3x the suggested retail price. The shortages came to a head when people in Great Britain were either unable to buy a GPU at any price or only able to buy an outdated model at extortionately high costs.
It took years for mining to truly take off, but when it finally did, it occurred during a time when manufacturers were beginning to move away from cryptocurrency-focused GPUs. NVIDIA in particular began to focus on non-cryptocurrency markets with their latest line of Pascal-based cards,
which included high-performing GPUs built specifically for gaming and professional applications. These new Pascal cards have been far more expensive than older models –
their prices making them much less competitive with AMD’s entry level offerings. The Great GPU Shortage existing Pascal line was simply priced too high in comparison to AMD’s competing products. NVIDIA likely wasn’t expecting demand in mining operations to spike as quickly as they did – they underestimated both mining interest and how well AMD would be able to respond.
Where are we now?
The Great GPU Shortage of 2021 was an odd episode in a long-running series of disputes between graphics card manufacturers and consumers. Graphics cards were a mainstream computing hardware item, used by both enthusiasts and PC builders of all stripes. As semiconductor process technology evolved over the decades, so did the processing power of GPUs,
which became commodities in their own right. But with great power comes great complexity and difficulty in manufacturing- something that the GPU market has never really managed to shake off. In 2021 this new higher processing demand coincided with a shortfall of production capacity for GPU silicon wafers due to unprecedented demand for AI chips. The upshot?
The great shortage officially ended in late 2023, with ASICs from both NVIDIA and AMD being produced by TSMC. This was helped along by a dramatic increase in silicon production capacity at TSMC’s fabrication plants as well as major investments into cutting Great GPU Shortage-edge manufacturing facilities for both firms.
The graphics card market returned to normal and consumers were able to order graphics Great GPU Shortage cards online without fear of missed release dates or exorbitant markups on product prices. An active anticompetitive investigation into Nvidia was also finally closed with no further action taken against either company.
How will we remember it?: For some, it is simply remembered as a worrying time when price gouging threatened to upset supply chains throughout PC hardware retail markets.
What will be next?
The Great GPU Shortage of 2021 will be remembered for many things: the collapse of AI as a technology, a return to the primitive computing paradigm of counting goats and cows in abacus stores, and exploding chip packets littering our environment. Few people know that some of these disruptions could have been prevented with better communication.
The graphics card makers failed to realise that a trend which increased demand for gaming GPUs would also cause an increase in demand for professional graphics cards.
If they’d been more proactive about forecasting, then action Great GPU Shortage could have been taken sooner. For example, by scaling production upwards on all circuits or hiring more personnel to help fill orders, suppliers might have averted some of these issues. The shortage also highlights that companies should never assume constant growth—new products and fads often follow unexpected patterns.
At its worst point, 18% of consumers couldn’t buy their preferred graphics card because there were none in stock anywhere. If manufacturers had scaled production upwards earlier, then many customers wouldn’t have suffered delays in receiving shipments and could have made better use of them once they arrived.
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