What is Nvidia?
Nvidia Corporation is a technology company known for designing and manufacturing graphics processing units (GPUs). The company was founded in 1993 by Jen-Hsun "Jensen" Huang, Curtis Priem and Chris Malachowsky and is headquartered in Santa Clara, Calif.
Nvidia's founders believed that for computer graphics to advance, a dedicated GPU would be needed. Previously, computer games were entirely CPU-based. However, gaming technology was advancing, slowly moving to Windows from MS-DOS. Graphics, especially 3D graphics, were reliant on considerable floating-point math processing, and the math coprocessor in the CPU was simply not enough.
Since establishing itself as the premier graphics chip provider for gaming, Nvidia has expanded into high-performance computing (HPC) and artificial intelligence (AI). The same gaming processors are used but repurposed for those different computational tasks.
For 2022, the company is projected to report revenues of $26.9 billion.
History of Nvidia
The GPU market was a very crowded one when Nvidia entered in the early 1990s. Competition included ATI Technologies, Matrox, Chips & Technology, S3 Graphics and 3Dfx. Nvidia rose above its competition in 1999 with the release of the GeForce card. It featured more advanced 3D graphics and lighting techniques than other manufacturers.
As the GPU market consolidated around Nvidia and ATI, which was acquired by AMD in 2006, Nvidia sought to expand the use of its GPU technology. In 2004, the company developed CUDA, a language similar to C++ used for programming GPUs.
Rather than using 3D graphics libraries as gamers did, CUDA allowed programmers to directly program to the GPU. This allowed them to write massive parallel programs to execute high-performance floating-point processes, such as simulations, visualizations and other applications with large amounts of data that need to be processed in parallel.
After introducing CUDA in 2006, Nvidia made a concerted effort to have the programming language taught in universities. Courses in CUDA can be found in more than 200 universities worldwide. This has helped build a workforce of Nvidia programmers.
In 2008, Nvidia introduced the Tegra line of systems-on-a-chip (SoC) that combined an Arm CPU with a scaled-down Nvidia GPU. Tegra was primarily sold to carmakers for in-dash systems. However, in 2017, Nintendo adopted the Tegra for its handheld Switch console.
For most of its history, Nvidia strategically acquired small companies. However, in 2019, the company bought networking specialist Mellanox Technologies, which was rumored to be an acquisition target by Intel, for $7 billion. Mellanox specializes in data processing units (DPUs), which are chips used in SmartNICs. SmartNICs intelligently route data better than a standard networking chip or CPU. The idea is to take over the processing of networking data, while the CPU continues its main job of processing data. Because HPC and AI require the movement of massive data sets, Nvidia's GPU processors benefit from intelligent data processing and routing.
In 2020, Nvidia attempted to acquire CPU designer Arm Holdings for $40 billion. The deal ran into immediate opposition in Arm's native United Kingdom, with allegations that Nvidia would play favorites with Arm licensing. Despite vehement denials, Nvidia was not able to overcome the opposition and dropped the deal after 18 months of effort.
In 2016, both Nvidia and AMD were faced with a challenge as crypto miners realized that GPUs were especially efficient at mining cryptocurrency, such as Bitcoin. Large systems were built, consuming the entire supply of GPU cards from both Nvidia and AMD. This led to a shortage of GPU cards, which only worsened when COVID-19 caused shortages and supply constraints.
Popular Nvidia products
While Nvidia sells GPUs to consumers under the GeForce brand name, the company names each new generation of its enterprise architecture products after a famous scientist, such as Maxwell, Turing and Tesla. As of this writing, the current generation is Ampere, while the next generation to come to market is Hopper. Other popular Nvidia products include the following:
- GeForce. Nvidia's line of consumer-oriented graphics processors for desktops and laptops.
- Nvidia Quadro/RTX. The company's GeForce modified for professional visual computing graphics processing products, such as CAD (computer-aided design). The brand has been retired and replaced with the RTX line.
- Tegra. The company's SoC series for mobile devices.
- DGX servers. Nvidia's own line of hardware with GPUs, memory and SSD storage, but without a CPU. They are targeted at HPC and AI uses.
- BlueField. The company's suite of DPUs designed to intelligently manage network traffic and relieve the CPU. This technology was inherited from the company's acquisition of Mellanox Technologies.
- Spectrum. Nvidia's next-generation Ethernet platform provides high-performance networking and effective security for the data center. It consists of ConnectX-7 SmartNIC, BlueField-3 DPU and the DOCA data center infrastructure software.
- Jetson. Nvidia's ultra-small form factor designed for embedded systems, combining a Nvidia GPU with an Arm processor.