Happy birthday, x86! An industry standard turns 30

Intel's x86 microprocessor architecture has dominated large swaths of computing for three decades. Here's why.

The competition heats up

Intel has not enjoyed immunity from competition even on its x86 home turf. For example, Taiwan-based VIA Technologies was founded in Silicon Valley in 1987 to sell core logic chip sets, some using x86 technology, for use in motherboards and other electronic components. VIA now makes a wide variety of products and aims its x86 processors at low-power mobile and embedded markets.

Advanced Micro Devices, the world's No. 2 maker of microprocessors, has become a competitive thorn in Intel's side since about 2000. Throughout most of the 1980s and 1990s, AMD had been a me-too maker of x86 chips and was hardly any concern to Intel. (It still has only about 15 per cent of the x86-compatible desktop and mobile market, according to Mercury Research.)

But AMD scored a technical and public relations coup in 2000 with its introduction of x86-64, a 64-bit superset of the x86 instruction set. As a superset, it meant that users of new x86-64 machines could use them to natively run their old 32-bit software.

At the time, Intel's 64-bit offering was Itanium, an architecture developed by Intel and Hewlett-Packard for superscalar execution on big iron, and it was not directly compatible with 32-bit x86-based software. Intel responded to the AMD threat with its own 64-bit x86 instruction superset, the EM64T, in 2004. AMD, and the press, made much of the fact that the company had beaten Intel to the 64-bit market that mattered most.

"It's an example of where the flexibility of the x86 instruction set was used against Intel," says Patterson. "So even though Intel dominates the market, another company can change directions for the x86."

Going to extremes

Today, Intel's x86 is chipping away at the extremes in computing. On April 28, the company announced it would team with Cray to develop new supercomputers based on Intel x86-based processors. (Cray already uses AMD's x86-based 64-bit Opteron processors.)

And at a Shanghai developer conference on April 2, Intel announced the Atom x86-based processor, the company's smallest. It draws less than 2.5 watts of power, compared with about 35 W for a typical laptop processor. The company shipped two new Atom chips for small laptops and desktops just this week.

So can the x86 thrive, or even survive, another 30 years? There are forces in play that will fundamentally transform microprocessor designs, even in the near term. But few are predicting the demise of the venerable x86. Says Carnegie Mellon's Mowry, "It's difficult to see any reason why another instruction set would take over, because there is so much valuable software that runs on [the x86]."

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