IBM opens up Power chip design, partners with Google

The two vendors and others form the OpenPower Consortium to push the chip design to new products

IBM will license designs of the Power microprocessor architecture to other companies including Google, in an effort to expand use of the architecture and reverse declines in its systems hardware business.

Intellectual property of the chip design is being opened up as part of a development alliance called OpenPower Consortium that IBM announced with Google on Tuesday. Consortium members will be able to make Power chips based on architecture designs, and component companies will be able to make hardware that can be integrated, or attached, to the processor.

Other initial OpenPower partners include graphics chip maker Nvidia, server maker Tyan, and Mellanox, which makes networking and storage equipment. The first products from alliance partners could be based on IBM's upcoming Power8 design, said Brad McCredie, vice president and chief technology officer at IBM's Systems and Technology Group (STG), in an interview.

"What was happening on the board yesterday is now happening on the chip," McCredie said. "We wanted to get out ahead of that shift."

In an email statement, Google said the OpenPower Consortium "has the potential to establish Power architecture as a viable option for applications running within Google's datacenters."

Google designs its own servers, and the search company could design its own integrated chip -- also called system-on-chip -- based on the Power architecture, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research.

That development is tied to one of IBM's goals -- to push Power-based chips into more servers, which could prop up the company's other businesses, McCarron said. IBM also offers software, hardware and services tied to servers running on Power and x86 processors.

"IBM wanted to expand their business outside of their own products, pretty much going into a licensing play," McCarron said.

IBM is opening its Power architecture at a time when the business has been struggling. Its Power division reported a 25 percent decline in revenue last quarter, while the broader Systems and Technology Group saw revenue decline 12 percent.Against that backdrop, IBM is making some of its employees take a mandatory furlough at the end of August, an IBM spokesman confirmed Tuesday. The furlough affects workers in the STG group and its Integrated Supply Chain division, which handles areas like procurement and logistics. The employees will receive an equivalent of one-third pay, while executives will not be paid for that week, IBM said. It declined to say how many workers are affected.

Tyan will be the first company to release a server based on the Power architecture, and said in a statement that the system was projected as an alternative to x86 servers. IBM has also included a feature in Power8 for component makers to easily attach their intellectual property to the chip. More companies will join the alliance in the coming months, McCredie said.

Third parties could release new system-on-chips based on Power in a few years, McCredie said, adding that the design cycle lasts two years or more. The Power IP is also being opened up to manufacturers, and IBM will continue to make chips for third parties.

OpenPower will be beneficial to IBM and its partners, as it will breed collaboration and innovation, and also help IBM go into new markets, McCredie said.

One of those markets is cloud computing, which is dominated by x86 chips from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices. IBM's Power chips are mostly used in mainframes and high-performance servers, but the company has been taking steps to move the chips into medium-range and low-end servers. IBM in the past year has lowered the price of some Flex Systems and preconfigured PureSystems servers, both of which use x86 and Power chips, and has also configured servers for cloud and virtualization deployments.

Mega data centers established by Google, Facebook and Amazon mostly use servers with x86 chips, but there is a growing interest in low-power ARM processors, which are mainly used in smartphones and tablets. Many believe that ARM servers will be quick and more power-efficient at handling quick-moving cloud transactions such as search requests and social network posts.

IBM's Power architecture brings more reliability, processing power and longevity to servers in cloud deployments, McCredie said, adding that the company is targeting the growing Asia market through the new OpenPower alliance.

The Power architecture and chips will continue to be developed for data centers, and likely not go in the direction of smartphone and tablet chips such as Intel's Atom x86 chips or ARM, McCredie said. IBM's Power chip design for servers is not the same as Power designs being used in microcontrollers from companies like Freescale Semiconductor.

McCredie said that opening up the Power architecture is also complementary to the Facebook-backed Open Compute Project, which focuses mostly on server designs.

IBM has been trying to push the Power architecture into other applications for many years, but rather than growing in opportunity, the market for the chip has been shrinking, said Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research.

"IBM's only success has been in the big iron mainframes and servers, but that market has also been shrinking for years as companies slowly migrate their software over to other hardware and software platforms, such as x86 and Linux. The biggest issue has always been with the software," McGregor said.

The move could be viewed as a desperate attempt to keep Power alive, but there is an opportunity for chips based on the architecture in data centers, McGregor said.

"There have always been and will always be room for multiple architectures in servers because of the varying workloads and power-performance requirements," McGregor said.

More features are being etched on to smaller and smaller chips, and IBM's move to open up Power could be tied to that trend, said Mercury Research's McCarron.

"What you can see over time, with all these architectures, integration and migration has been the theme," McCarron said.

Companies may not want to put multiple chips in a system, and instead would prefer to build a single chip with all the features integrated.

"It's an acknowledgement of where the industry is headed and that is that discrete solutions are not going to play in products," McCarron said.

Intel won't sit back and will have a competitive response, McCarron said. The world's largest chip maker could cut the prices on its server chips, or even open up testing and design of its chips.

"If it represented any significant threat to their server business, there will be a strong response," McCarron said.

One of the more interesting aspects of OpenPower is IBM and Google partnering with Nvidia, which is tuning its CUDA parallel programming toolkit for Power processors. Both could help resolve the issue around the software and make Power another good alternative, McGregor said.

"If you could combine the big iron performance of Power with the efficiency of ARM and the parallelism of a GPU, you could develop some really interesting and diverse solutions," McGregor said.

(James Niccolai of the IDG News Service in San Francisco contributed to this story.)

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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