What is Intel?
Intel Corp. is the world's largest manufacturer of central processing units and semiconductors. The company is best known for CPUs based on its x86 architecture, which was created in the 1980s and has been continuously modified, revised and modernized.
Intel also offers graphics processing units (GPUs), networking accelerators, and communications and security products.
History of Intel
Intel was founded in 1968 by a group of semiconductor engineers from Fairchild Semiconductor, led by Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce. The company's name comes from shortening the term integrated electronics.
Although the company created its first CPU in 1971, Intel's primary business was static random access memory (SRAM) and dynamic random access memory (DRAM) chips. IBM used the Intel 8-bit chip 8088 processor when it created the PC in the 1980s, and then moved to Intel's 16-bit 8086.
IBM was hesitant to be dependent on a single supplier for its CPU, so it required Intel to license the 8086 architecture to other chipmakers, including AMD, Cyrix, Via Technologies and STMicroelectronics. Intel's disputes over licensing its technology with AMD eventually led to the two companies going to court, with the judge ruling in favor of AMD. Intel was forced to license its technology, which remains in place today.
Intel continued its x86 naming convention with the 80286, 80386 and 80486 processors. In 1993, it changed its brand name to Pentium.
In 1998, Intel expanded its focus from desktops to server processors with the introduction of its Xeon line. Before this, server processors were manufactured mainly by Unix vendors such as IBM and Sun Microsystems.
In the mid-1990s, Hewlett-Packard partnered with Intel to make a new family of processors derived from HP's PA-RISC called Itanium. While the Itanium was 64-bit and had instruction sets that were favorable to mission-critical computing, its lack of compatibility with x86 code severely limited its appeal. In addition, HP was the only significant OEM customer for the processor and developing applications on it was difficult.
In 2004, Intel licensed instructions for its 64-bit processor for x86 from AMD. This increased capacity to 16 exabytes of memory.
In 2005, Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced the company would transition its Macintosh line of computers from Motorola's PowerPC to Intel's x86, ending a 20-year relationship between Apple and Motorola. In 2020, Apple announced that it would make its own CPUs, ending its 15-year relationship with Intel.
In 2007, Apple approached Intel about building a mobile processor for a smartphone it had in development. Intel passed on the opportunity, which would become the iPhone. After the release and subsequent success of the iPhone, Intel quickly produced a mobile processor called Atom, an alternative to Apple's Arm mobile processor. Intel's submission would prove too late, however, and the company would wind down Atom development and its pursuit of the smartphone market in 2016.
Intel products and services
Intel manufactures and offers a multitude of products and services in the computing space.
Intel's top product is its CPU line for desktop and laptop computers. Primary products are sold under the Core brand name, with the newest generation of Core i9 processors having up to 12 cores. Low-end processors are sold under the Celeron and Pentium brand names, with some Celerons having single- and dual-core editions.
Supporting PC chipset
In 2007, Intel introduced its vPro brand for remote IT management and support. It comes as standard issue on every Intel motherboard for a server, laptop and desktop computer.
The vPro business technology enables IT departments to monitor, update and troubleshoot multiple PCs without having to physically go to the hardware in question. IT professionals can remotely troubleshoot a laptop in another office.
The Xeon processor is the same basic CPU design as the Core desktop and laptop processor, but it offers extra technology for reliability, scalability and availability. It's designed for much less fault-tolerant use cases, such as servers.
Intel has four different families of Xeon processors:
- Xeon D for small systems when space and power are at a premium;
- Xeon E for business-ready performance in entry server products;
- Xeon W for creative professionals using high-end workstations and running VFX, 3D rendering and 3D CAD;
- Xeon Scalable that work for a number of server uses and make up a majority of the processor line.
Intel has had GPU technology for a long time, but it was only for integrated graphics. Intel had low-end GPUs as part of its Core processors, which are suitable for running Windows and productivity applications. The company didn't compete with superior GPU cards from Nvidia and AMD in the gaming or enterprise markets.
However, this changed in 2018 when Intel announced development of its Xe GPU architecture and its intent to compete with Nvidia and AMD in the PC graphics card market. Released in 2020, Xe is found in consumer products sold under the Arc brand name and in enterprise GPUs under the codename Ponte Vecchio.
High-performance computing and AI
Intel has a variety of processors for AI and high-performance computing, including the Xeon Scalable CPU, Alteryx field-programmable gate arrays and the Ponte Vecchio GPU. Intel also had a dedicated AI processor called Habana, which it acquired after purchasing Habana Labs in 2019 for $2 billion. Habana performs both training and inference in AI. This is important as training and inference are two separate processes with different compute requirements.
Optane persistent memory
Optane is a unique, Intel-only technology that serves as a cache for SSDs. SSDs are faster than HDDs, but still considerably slower than standard DRAM. Intel's Optane has almost the same speed as DRAM, but it also the persistence of an SSD. Optane sits between flash storage and DRAM and acts as a cache for SSDs. It's a server–only technology and caters to the enterprise market.
Intel Foundry Service
Due to the expense of maintaining and updating fabrication facilities, some semiconductor firms have their chips manufactured by third-party foundry companies. In 2021, Intel joined the chip fabrication market as the Intel Foundry Service -- alongside companies such as Samsung and the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company -- to capitalize on the growing need for foundry capacity. Its customers include AWS and Qualcomm.
OneAPI is a unifying API for all of Intel's semiconductors. OneAPI decides the best processor for the application and compiles it for that processor. This frees the developer from having to worry about low-level programming tasks. As of this writing, oneAPI is still under development and Intel promises to release it as open source.