Intel's Looming Battle with Nvidia

As Intel heads into its spring IDF starting April 2 in China, it looks like the companies are on a collision course in the graphics market. But more than just PC graphics are at stake.

It's no longer just Advanced Micro Devices that Intel has in its sights.

When Intel executives sat down recently to outline the upcoming spring Developer Forum, which starts April 2 in China, Pat Gelsinger, senior vice president of the Digital Enterprise Group, spent a significant amount of time talking about the graphics abilities of both "Nehalem"-the company's next chip microarchitecture set for release later this year-and "Larrabee," a processor with multiple cores, which will contain an integrated GPU (graphics processing unit).

These disclosures from Intel seemed to solidify what many have suspected for some time: The chip giant is prepared to move deeper into the graphics market, challenging Nvidia, long known for its range of graphics for mainstream computers and gaming desktops.

While it's not primarily known for its graphics technology, Intel commanded 43.5 percent of all GPU shipments in the fourth quarter of 2007, while Nvidia controlled 33.6 percent, according to a January report from Jon Peddie Research.

It's more than just the graphics that go into PCs that Nvidia and Intel are likely to clash over in the coming months. Both companies also see GPU and graphics technologies as a key feature to delve deeper into the HPC (high-performance computing) market, a lucrative field where graphics could increase overall compute performance.

"All three companies, AMD, Intel and Nvidia, are going after this emerging market for high-performance computing that includes applications for oil and gas, health care and medical imaging," said John Spooner, an analyst with Technology Business Research. "These chips companies are looking to put supercomputer-like capabilities inside x86 boxes to run applications like crash test simulations and mechanical design. It's a market where the customer can not get enough performance per dollar."

That's not to say that this is the only market where Intel and Nvidia will clash. The gaming market is another area where the two will meet with competing platforms to offer the most realistic gaming environments.

While the Larrabee chip will likely appear sometime in late 2009 or 2010 and has some mainstream applications, its initial appearance will likely land in the HPC field, said Jim McGregor, an analyst with the InStat Group.

"The type of chip that Intel described [Larrabee] is primarily for the ultra high end of the market and high-performance computing, especially if you look at the diagrams and see that they are offering an x86 core and a graphics processor that you could program like an x86 core and has the ability to perform floating point calculations," McGregor said.

Nvidia does not want to be left out.