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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.

Despite the momentum, some see challenges ahead. Creating new hardware is one piece of the puzzle, but IBM has to convince customers that cost and performance gains from Power will be sufficient to justify introducing a new chip architecture to environments that have standardized on x86.

"So far, this is all very embryonic," said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight64.

IBM says customers will be able to port Linux applications to Power relatively easily, especially now that Power 8 supports the "Little Endian" compute model used by x86 chips. But those applications will still need to be patched and maintained separately from their x86 counterparts, which adds a layer of complexity that hyperscale customers like to avoid, Brookwood noted.

He thinks customers are expressing interest in Power to gain pricing leverage against Intel.

"If you look at what a Tyan or a Rackspace has to do to put together a Power system, it's not a huge expense, and there are a whole lot of people who buy Intel servers who right now feel Intel has them over a barrel," Brookwood said. "They would love to leave an OpenPower brochure on the desk when the Intel sales guy comes around, to let them know they're not the only game in town."

IBM, obviously, doesn't see it that way. It says Power can offer significant cost-performance advantages, especially for big, data-intensive applications, thanks to its high thread count, on-chip bandwidth and the large amount of memory it can address.

It has a partial vote of confidence from Google, which said last year it had built its own Power-based server board. It's still not known whether Google plans to use Power servers in production, though one of its engineers is chair of the OpenPower Foundation.

Rackspace is also a fan. It's designing a Power 8 server that it will use to offer a new, bare metal compute service running the OpenStack cloud software. Aaron Sullivan, Rackspace senior director and distinguished engineer, showed an early version of its server board, dubbed Barreleye, at the Open Compute Project Summit last week. "This will be much more efficient for our apps than anything we have today," he said in a talk at the event.

The other new hardware announced Wednesday includes a developer platform from Nvidia, Tyan and Cirrascale, for building GPU-accelerated systems that run big data analytics, deep learning and scientific computing applications. Called the Cirrascale RM4950, IBM says it will ship in volume in the second quarter.

Xilinx and Altera are also on board. They say they're working with IBM and its partners to allow programmable chips, known as FPGAs, to be used with Power chips to accelerate particular types of workloads.

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the name of Suzhou PowerCore.

 

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