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IBM rides nightmarish hardware landscape on OpenPOWER Consortium raft

Google mulls 'third-generation of warehouse-scale computing' on Big Blue's open chips

IBM is going to ride out the storm rippling through the hardware industry by donating one of its crown jewels to a consortium of partner companies with the hope it can make a bit of cash off the ensuing sales.

At a press conference in San Francisco on Wednesday Big Blue - along with partners from Google, Nvidia, Mellanox, Tyan, and others - outlined how it hoped to breathe new life into its venerable POWER chip architecture, and in doing so shake up the 'hyperscale' data centers operated by consumer web giants like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft.

"We're ready to start innovating," explained OpenPOWER chairman and chief of Google's platform engineering group, Gordon Mackean. "This is going be a low-cost system. It's something we're very proud of and we're building off of – we've got firmware, a Linux OS, hypervisor, and developer tools in place. We've also got a pipeline of innovation."

The message of the event was that OpenPOWER is real, has interest from 26 members (Rice University announced it had joined on Wednesday), and may offer companies chip and system-level features they can't get from Intel (even via its semi-secretive chip customization business).

To back that up IBM showed off a "whitebox" (read: cheap) POWER board development and reference design from Tyan, along with firmware and operating system tech from IBM, Google, and Canonical.

Google, MacKean explained, sees OpenPOWER "as that opportunity to launch the third-generation of warehouse-scale computing." The Chocolate Factory believes that, along with the other members of the Consortium, it can fix bottlenecks in networking, memory subsystems, input-ouput subsystems, and other accelerators.

For its part, Google said it is developing and hardening the codebase and development tools of the tech.

Besides this, Nvidia has implemented CUDA acceleration on POWER, which it says will be available at the end of the year and plans to make its high-speed GPU interconnect, 'NVLink', available to OpenPOWER partners.

IBM also said in a release that Xilinx and Altera are designing FPGA accelerators that will be attached to OpenPOWER designs, and Micron, Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix memory are also developing technologies for the tech.

IBM as the ARM of servers?

The OpenPOWER Consortium was formed by IBM a year ago at a time when it and other IT incumbents were seeing their hardware divisions cut down by a dive in spending from big clients, and increased use by mega-buyers of Asian original device manufacturers to design custom low-cost servers.

Along with this, Intel's x86 architecture continued to dominate the market in both typical servers and also high-performance computing, putting alternate architecture providers like Oracle, IBM and, to a lesser extent HP, in a tough position.

So, how then to keep its POWER chips alive and guarantee them a large market in a changing world? IBM's answer to this conundrum was OpenPOWER, which seeks to do for its chip architecture what UK company ARM's licensing model did for its eponymous chips, causing them to become the fundamental technology to the vast majority of the world's phones and tablets.

IBM is seeking with OpenPOWER to do to 'hyperscale' servers what ARM did to phones, and in doing so create itself a huge stream of low-margin revenue that it can rely upon in years to come. Although no one said it today, a helpful side effect is that this may cut down Intel's large business in huge data centers.

Big Blue's hope, it indicated on Wednesday, is that by licensing the innards of its "POWER" chips to companies like Google, Canonical, Nvidia, Tyan, Suzhou PowerCore Technology, it may be able to create new markets for the chip beyond IBM's traditional mainframes and high-end systems.

OpenPOWER Consortium is, in many ways, where the guerrilla development approach of open source meets the expensive, complex world of chip hardware. IBM and its partners are betting that the architecture is good enough to meet their expectations.

Giving the enthusiastic mood that wafted through the press conference, it was only natural that Intel would point out some of the possible drawbacks of the tech.

"The OpenPOWER Foundation may hope to someday create a "open" solution but it faces a complex multi-year effort to establish an ecosystem around design, manufacturing, and software," an Intel spokesperson told El Reg via email.

"Most data centers around the world today run on Intel and we are not slowing down - businesses recognize the value and there is a large and growing x86 ecosystem (established over many years) that isn't going away. Creating an ecosystem is not an easy feat and could take several years and a significant investment of time and money in porting architectures."

Intel-rival ARM, by comparison, was much more upbeat about the whole affair.

"Across the server market, even within non-volume servers, users are ready to move beyond the one size fits all approach for servers and OpenPOWER is further validation of this as well as the ARM business model," an ARM spokesperson told us via email.

"Server customers are demanding choice and differentiation which is why ARM and its partners are already well underway with our work to move the volume server market beyond the limitations associated with a proprietary architecture."

With OpenPOWER's 26 partners ranging from equipment makers to deep-pocketed potential customers like Google, the scheme has a chance of working. Maybe ARM has a new buddy in its plan to hoist Intel's chips out of the biggest data centers? ®

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