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Why Intel’s Graphics Card Turf War With Nvidia and AMD Turned to Open Standards

March 11, 2019, 1:00 PM UTC

As Intel prepares to take on Nvidia and Advanced Micro Devices with its own line of graphics cards coming out in a few years, the chipmaking giant is planting seeds now, by using its dominant position in processor chips, to catch up to its two rivals.

On Monday, Intel and some partners debuted an open industry standard dubbed the Compute Express Link, or CXL, for moving digital data rapidly between computer processors and other components like graphics cards, programmable processors, and memory in the server computers and networks used in large data centers. And while Nvidia and AMD were nowhere to be seen in the announcement, Intel said it had the backing of cloud data center operators Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Alibaba, as well as hardware makers Cisco Systems, Dell EMC, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, and Huawei.

Intel supplies more than 95% of the central processors for servers, but the company has no position in the market for standalone graphic processing cards, yet. Though graphics cards were once solely the domain of avid video gamers, they’ve become increasingly important components in data center servers for running artificial intelligence and machine learning tasks like image and speech recognition—stoking Intel’s interest.

Monday’s announcement could give Intel an advantage for its upcoming graphics cards, since the chip-maker will be building CXL compatibility into its popular server processors. Nvidia hasn’t convinced Intel to add its proprietary connection standards, known as NVLink, to Intel CPUs. But since the CXL standard is open, Nvidia could add compatibility to its graphics products, at least in theory.

Intel compared CXL to other industry standards it helped popularize. “Like USB and PCI Express, which Intel also co-founded, we can look forward to a new wave of industry innovation and customer value delivered through the CXL standard,” Jim Pappas, Intel’s director of technology initiatives, said in a statement.

Hardware vendor partners praised Intel for allowing a faster connection its processor chips in servers via an open standard. “We applaud Intel for opening up the interface to the processor,” Mark Potter, HP’s (HPQ) chief technology officer, said in a statement. “CXL will help customers utilize accelerators more efficiently.”

Asked about how CXL might bolster Intel’s (INTC) competitive position in graphics, a spokesman said the company’s goal is improving computing for all users. “The easier you make technology to consume, the more people consume it and grow the pie for everyone,” he said.

Back in November, Intel hired the former head of AMD’s graphics business, Raja Koduri, and said it planned to spend the next few years developing its own line of standalone graphics cards to compete with those produced by Nvidia (NVDA) and AMD. Before his recent stint at AMD, Koduri helped develop retina screen displays for Apple’s iPhone and was one of the top graphics developers at ATI Technologies, which AMD acquired in 2006.