The Birth of X86
X86 architecture has its roots in the Intel 8086 microprocessor, released in 1978. It was first to implement the 16-bit computing that the previous 8085 lacks. Despite its primitive graphics capabilities, at the time this was the first machine capable of running commercial software for personal computers. This significantly lowered the cost barrier for purchasing a computer, thus kickstarting the home computer revolution. Since then, the x86 architecture has persisted in desktop and laptop computers, powering many of the advancements in technology over the past four decades.
Intel’s domination of the x86 market was so complete that it became (and remains) synonymous with x86 architecture. It monopolized the market by introducing a series of superior processor generations such as the 80286 (1982), 80386 (1985) and 80486 (1989). Each iteration of these processors extended the capabilities of the x86 architecture and pushed the envelope on computing power and performance. By the end of the 90s, Intel had succeeded in securing dominance as the supplier of x86 processors.
In order to protect their intellectual property and preserve their market position, Intel patented the x86 instruction set and aggressively licensed it to any company wanting to build x86-compatible processors. With the introduction of the Pentium line of processors in 1993, Intel created a stiff rule: the licensees (AMD and other chipmakers) were not allowed to create processor versions that exceeded the latest Intel liners.
AMD secured the first license for x86 in 1976. Since then, AMD has imitated and iterated upon Intel designs. The advent of AMD Athlon processor in 1999 was a pivotal moment – AMD was now capable of matching Intel in performance metrics. The long-standing cross-licensing agreement between AMD and Intel expired in 2009, allowing the two companies to compete more directly.This imbued AMD with the confidence to push the boundaries of the x86 architecture, releasing groundbreaking products such as their Ryzen line of processors, which boast performance and power efficiency improvements over their Intel counterparts.
ARM, while not considered an x86 architecture, has increasingly become a more viable alternative to traditional x86 designs. ARM is based on a Reduced Instruction Set Computing (RISC) model, allowing for CPU cores to be integrated onto one chip, thus creating single-chip solutions offering superior power efficiency that x86 architectures can’t match. This has caused a shift in the architecture landscape, in particular for mobile devices, where ever-tighter power, size and weight budgets have pushed this architecture to the forefront of innovation.
The Future of X86
Intel’s recent Turing launch showcased the company’s willingness to pursue ever-increasing levels of performance and power efficiency. However, competition from AMD and ARM have forced Intel to step up their game or risk fading away into irrelevance. This does lead to a positive outcome for the consumer, as it means better performance, longer battery life and more choice. X86 is expected to remain the mainstay architecture for the foreseeable future, however Intel must remain vigilant to keep their position secure.
Changing the Rules
The rapid advances in Moore’s Law, which states that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit will double approximately every two years, has caused a continued decrease in the size of components and a corresponding decrease in pricing. According to Intel, the seventeenth version of the x86 architecture standard is set to be released in 2021. This version is reported to offer processors with much higher clock frequencies and elegant multitasking capabilities. Furthermore, the instruction set is being updated and optimized to focus on architectural innovations, even allowing software to influence the processor’s behavior via instruction prefixes.
Different Types of X86 Processors
Today, x86 processors are present in desktop and laptop PCs, servers, gaming consoles, as well as some smartphones and embedded systems. In addition, within the x86 market there are distinct segments such as: enterprise-grade processors like the Intel Xeon, Intel Atom and AMD EPYC; enthusiast-grade chips like the Intel Core i7 and AMD Ryzen; and mobile processor chips like the Intel Core i3 and AMD A-series, among many others.
Sharing the Love
Despite the monopoly Intel has on this architecture, agreements have been in place that ensure a level playing field and help keep the market competitive. For example, AMD is allowed to contribute to the development of x86 architecture and the parts of the instruction set that are covered by the Intel patents – provided AMD grants licenses to third-party developers. This has resulted in the x86 architecture being open to a plethora of technologies from outside chipmakers and Intel itself bringing an unprecedented level of innovation and competition.
X86 architecture continues to dominate the data-center market with cloud vendors such as Amazon, Google and Microsoft favoring x86 servers over other architectures. This is because the x86 instruction set has been supported by the widest selection of server-grade software. This, combined with the wide availability of processor choices and the success of Intel’s Xeon platform, has solidified the architecture’s market dominance.
Security Implications of X86
The ubiquity of x86 processors means that they are also prone to software vulnerabilities and malicious activity. Newer processor generations have implemented a range of protective technologies such as memory segmentation and virtualization, which work to maintain system security. Despite this, Intel processors have been the target of security exploits, most notably the ‘Spectre’ and ‘Meltdown’ exploits in 2018, rendering have millions of users vulnerable to privilege escalation attacks.
X86 architecture has enabled the development of powerful and performant technologies, and boosted the productivity of numerous tasks. For example, the ability to virtualize processes, store data in memory and increase the number of logical processors within a single physical processor all represent major performance gains which have enabled modern technologies such as AI and machine learning to flourish.
Software developers have long been reliant on x86 architecture, since it is the primary target for code compilation. With x86 architecture being the de-facto standard, this has enabled developers to more easily port applications to different platforms and operating systems. Furthermore, Intel and AMD have both rolled out hardware-based support for various programming languages, such as Python and C++, allowing developers to write more thematic code, which can run much faster on the x86 platform when compared against traditional desktop architectures.
The thriving x86 market has generated huge revenues for Intel and AMD alike. For example, Intel’s Xeon processor family has enabled the company to The rapidly expand its data center revenues and profits. AMD too, has leveraged the x86 architecture to make a successful comeback in the market, pushing Intel to its limits in terms of performance and power efficiency.