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IBM's Mighty Morphin Power Rangers

Takes Power chips onto the open road

IBM yesterday held the Power Everywhere event in New York, which was a bit of a debutante ball for the upcoming Power5 chip and its Squadron line servers. What Big Blue really wanted to talk about, though, was opening up the Power architecture in such a way as to mimic the open source development methodology that is increasingly popular for standard software components...

By embracing this approach, IBM hopes to make its Power line of processors pervasive because it will allow a whole ecosystem of Power-related hardware and software to emerge in a way that has not been possible as IBM and Motorola have controlled the Power architecture.

IBM's top brass from its server and technology groups were very careful to try to avoid the implication that Big Blue is going to try to take Intel head-on in the processor racket. If this hesitancy sounds like a blast from the past, it is, just like the thumping rhythm of "The Power" by Snap was at the event yesterday.

IBM vs Intel

In February 1990, when IBM debuted the first Power RISC processor for its Unix workstation and server, it was an also-ran and a bit of a joke in the Unix market. And when the PowerPC alliance was formed between IBM, Motorola, and Apple in October 1991 to create a single PowerPC chip family that could run Unix, Windows, MacOS, and OS/400, the company allowed everyone else to figure out that they wanted to take on Intel, but they never really said it.

IBM's increasingly aggressive moves into the RISC/Unix market in the past 14 years have allowed it to catch up to rivals, putting it solidly in a three-way race with Unix vendors Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems. But those moved haven't really taken Intel down many pegs.

Both IBM and Motorola have carved a solid piece of market share out of the embedded processor market with their respective PowerPC designs because, to put it bluntly, the PowerPC designs that the two have for the embedded market can do the same work as alternatives with roughly half the clock speed and a lot lower power consumption.

Neither company may have been particularly good at fostering a broad ecosystem for Power processors, but the 32-bit and 64-bit designs are solid and that is why Sony, Nintendo, Toshiba, Samsung, Microsoft, and dozens of other companies are using Power processors in their products.

Broad ambitions

IBM wants more than this. Irving Wladawsky-Berger, vice president of technology and strategy at IBM, hit the nail on the head when he described what IBM was after when he explained that IBM wanted to have a diverse range of Power processors in markets ranging from embedded controllers to handhelds and cell phones to desktops, servers, and supercomputers, because this was the only way to spread development and manufacturing costs around a large number of manufactured processors.

Moreover, the expertise of designers in one area and the technologies they develop - such as with high-end server processors - can be repurposed in other designs, such as for embedded devices. In IBM's view, it will take very large and powerful servers - what IBM usually calls deep computing in homage to the Deep Blue chess-playing Unix supercomputer - to field the requests of billions of connected devices running all kinds of devices, which IBM calls pervasive computing.

While IBM knows it cannot have a Power processor in every device along that spectrum, it wants its fair share, and now, after its experience with Java and Linux, it wants to make the Power processor family an open standard that is easy to license and adapt for myriad uses.

The cost of Power

When you realize that IBM spent $2.5 billion to create the 300mm chip factory in East Fishkill, New York, where it makes its latest Power processors, and spent $500 million to design the Power4 and Power4+ processors, it doesn't take any more numbers to realize that IBM does not want to shoulder the burden of continuing Power development alone. This is why IBM is proposing a much broader licensing structure for its Power cores and related technologies, why it will be providing partners and universities with free software and design services relating to the Power chips, and why it will allow other chip makers to license its chip making technologies and become second sources of Power chip fabrication.

Nick Donofrio, senior vice president of technology and manufacturing at IBM, and the guy who brought the RS/6000 Unix servers and workstations to market in 1990, said IBM was exploring a community approach, like that of Java and Linux, to the design of the Power processors themselves. He explained why IBM would do this. "The architecture is no longer the center of innovation," he said.

IBM's former chairman, Louis Gerstner, rammed that same idea about operating systems into the heads of its executives and eventually IBM embraced Linux with all of its heart. The truth, though, is more like this: If Linux takes off, operating systems can no longer be control points except where vendor lock-in on applications on specific proprietary platforms is strong.

Donofrio was adamant that the chip is no longer the issue, and that IBM was not gunning for Intel. "We don't compete with Intel," Donofrio said. "We are system-level people and system-level thinkers." The real value of the Power chip was in the systems and devices that use it, and the innovation that companies other than IBM can add to what IBM is doing with its own systems.

Opening up development

IBM was quite vague on how this Power chip community might work, but the company was clear about one thing - it would absolutely retain control over the Power instruction set to ensure that applications would remain compatible across the wide range of 32-bit and 64-bit Power processors. If this sounds a bit like the Java Community Process (JCP) - which IBM grumbles about because Sun Microsystems Inc has not relinquished control of Java since it controls the JCP - then you are hearing correctly.

And while Linux is open source, so anyone can make changes to it, the core kernel design is a meritocracy controlled by the Open Source Development Labs, which listens very closely to whatever opinions Linus Torvalds has. Neither Java nor Linux are completely open, and an "open chip" model for the Power processor can't be either.

In this regard, the open Power chip - if this idea actually takes off - will more closely resemble the open systems Unix market, with closed source and open specifications licensed for money, than it will the open source Linux market, where code is open and vendors have to make their money integrating and providing service to the software stack.

Source: ComputerWire/Datamonitor

Related research: Datamonitor, "The IBM Corporation" (RBTC0058)

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