IBM ventures into open hardware in 'desperation'
One expert server analyst regarded with scepticism the outlook for IBM's Power8 open hardware processors and motherboards. He doubted if the technology can break into a market in which it can successfully plant its roots into. It was unclear at the launch event who will license the IBM technology apart from a single Chinese company.
IBM announced 26 partners for its OpenPower Foundation (OPF) at the event. A Google engineering manager chairs the effort, signalling the search company's interest, but he made no specific commitment to using Power 8.
"Google gets in bed with everybody... they'll be in all these different activities, but it's never really a strategic thing for them," Nathan Brookwood, principal of the market watcher Insight64, told EE Times. IBM's open hardware move is "driven by desperation more than hope."
Despite its high performance, IBM's Power8 lacks the volume to compete in a very expensive processor battle with the massively popular Intel and ARM architectures, Brookwood said. In addition, the open development model may not be successful in the server market, where a few players retain tight control.
"Adding open to Power doesn't make Power open, nor will it make Power more appealing to the vast majority of people who are deploying Intel servers today," he said. "Power is a very innovative architecture, but buyers tend to be very reluctant to buy into architecture they're not using if it looks like the architecture is on its way out."
Taking the opposite position, Suzhou PowerCore said it plans to license the Power architecture and chip design tools to develop and market processors for servers in China. Seeking more opportunities in Asia, IBM executives are travelling to China this week to hold another OPF event.
Figure 1: IBM's Tom Rosamilia (left) and Doug Balog (right) reveal the company's Power 8 systems. (Source: Monica Davey/IBM)
InformationWeek reports that Tyan, a Taiwanese motherboard maker, has developed a Power8 reference design for unbranded server makers. The company is also a founding OPF member. Other OPF partners in Asia include Samsung, ZTE, SK Hynix, and Hitachi.
Brookwood said that much of China's Internet infrastructure is based on Intel's x86, which could be a high hurdle. Power 8 will get most of its customer base from Power 7 users, he said.
Kamran Khan, Rice University's vice provost for information technology and a Power 7 user, spoke at the event on behalf of the architecture. "Big data is processing... volumes of petabytes of data, and it's hard to do that on commodity servers," Khan said.
IBM releases CPU's tech specs
Despite the hurdles, IBM executives were optimistic Power 8 will gain traction as an open hardware alternative to the x86.
"It's about opening the platform up in a way you've never seen in the server market before," Doug Balog, IBM general manager for power systems, said at the event. "We acknowledge that no one company can do it all these days. The target is moving too fast around mobile, social, analytics, the cloud... no one company should have the right to own innovation."
Through the OPF, IBM will make the Powe 8 hardware and software available for licensing. Ultimately, members could use Powe 8 to create custom open servers, components, and optimised Linux code for cloud datacenters.
IBM already has released technical specifications for Power 8. The eight-threaded processor packs 12 cores, made in a 22nm process. It can analyse data 50 times faster than the latest x86-based systems, according to the company.
"This is the first truly disruptive advancement in high-end server technology in decades, with radical technology changes and the full support of an open server ecosystem that will seamlessly lead our clients into this world of massive data volumes and complexity," Tom Rosamilia, senior vice president of IBM's systems and technology group, said in a press release. "There no longer is a one-size-fits-all approach to scale out a datacenter."
Figure 2: OpenPower's model.
Despite earlier layoffs and rumours that it might leave the semiconductor business, the company says it is on the forefront of design trends. Richard Talbot, director and project executive for IBM Power Systems, told us an inclination towards openness in software and application development is now creeping into all layers of hardware.
One interesting detail in the news is IBM's use of NVLink, a high-speed interconnect for GPU and CPUs, co-developed with Nvidia. Brookwood said the high-performance computing community will try a different architecture if it gives them a performance advantage unavailable elsewhere.
"It's an interesting way to attach devices; it lowers latency between devices, instead of going through a multi-layered infrastructure," Talbot said. "The GPU is attached directly to the processor, so you get upwards of 40x better latency than using standard IO technologies."
- Jessica Lipsky
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