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IBM's OpenPower project takes strides with first commercial server

James Niccolai | March 19, 2015
Taiwan's Tyan will start selling the first OpenPower server by mid-year, IBM says.

An IBM project to expand the market for its Power processor is making headway, with new hardware announced Wednesday that aims to challenge Intel's dominance in the data center.

IBM still has a lot of work to do, but the project it launched two years ago to open up the Power architecture for use by other hardware makers is gaining momentum. The idea is to lower the cost of Power-based systems so they can be sold into hyperscale data centers and high-performance computing environments, areas dominated today by x86 processors.

Tyan, a server manufacturer in Taiwan, will deliver the first commercially available OpenPower server in the second quarter, a two-socket system aimed at hyperscale customers such as Internet service and cloud providers, IBM said.

The first OpenPower system from IBM is also on its way, a product known as Firestone that will target HPC users and is due out later this year. It will be manufactured by Taiwan's Wistron and sold by IBM, and incorporates GPU technology from Nvidia and interconnects from Mellanox.

They are just two of the announcements being made at the OpenPower Summit in Silicon Valley. IBM says the OpenPower Foundation now has 113 members, up from 30 nine months ago.

IBM launched the effort with Tyan, Nvidia, Mellanox, and Google. Sales of IBM's traditional, Power-based Unix systems are declining, and through the OpenPower Foundation it hopes vendors will produce a variety of systems that will breath new life into the architecture.

It's doing it in a couple of ways. First, it provided hardware reference designs for Power servers, along with open source firmware, virtualization and other software, to let third parties like Tyan build their own systems using Power 8 processors.

That's already a big change for IBM, which historically kept its Power technologies close to its chest. But IBM's business model isn't set up to sell low cost systems, and it's encouraging hardware partners to produce servers in the sub-$6,000 range to reach new customers.

IBM is also licensing the Power architecture itself, in a model similar to that used by ARM, so other companies can build derivatives of the Power chip. That's a longer-term effort, but IBM is also announcing that China's Suzhou PowerCore expects to release the first non-IBM Power server chip in the second quarter. Dubbed CP1, it will go into a server being developed for the local Chinese market.

IBM has big hopes for China, where policies favoring local suppliers are making it harder for outside firms to compete. It hopes the homegrown systems will appeal to big cloud providers like Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent.

"It opens up China for us, because we're now talking about a local producer instead of a multinational," said Ken King, IBM manager for OpenPower alliances.

 

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