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IBM's Power chips hit the big time at Google

James Niccolai | April 7, 2016
Google and Rackspace are working on a server that uses IBM's Power9 processor.

Google and Rackspace are designing a server based on IBM's upcoming Power9 processor, a sure sign that Intel is no longer the only game in town for cloud service providers.

The companies announced plans for the system, which they call Zaius, at IBM's OpenPower Summit in Silicon Valley on Wednesday. It's one of several new Power servers on show at the event.

They plan to submit the design to the Open Compute Project, meaning other companies will be able to use the design as well.

Google's data centers have long relied on servers based on Intel x86 processors, but the search giant has lately been exploring systems based on Power as well as ARM-based processors.

Two years ago, Google showed a Power server board it had developed for testing purposes, though it hadn't said much about those efforts since. It's now clear that Google is serious about using the IBM chip in its infrastructure.

"It won’t surprise anyone to hear that demand for compute at Google has been relentless, and it isn’t slowing down any time soon," the company said in a blog post. To meet the demand, Google's data centers need to be able to handle "ISA heterogeneity," it said, or the the ability to support multiple instruction set architectures.

That's a big change for Google, which historically has kept costs down partly by running the most homogeneous infrastructure it can.

Google's Maire Mahony 
Google's Maire Mahony at the OpenPower Summit Wednesday. Credit: James Niccolai

The Power architecture is now "fully supported across our toolchain," said Maire Mahony, a hardware engineering manager at Google and director of the OpenPower Foundation. That means Google's developers can quickly deploy applications to Power systems.

She declined to say if the company is running production applications on Power today. But she said Google has ported "many" of its apps to the IBM chip.

Aaron Sullivan, a distinguished engineer at Rackspace, said cloud providers are attracted to Power for two reasons: One is that it's a good, high-performance CPU, and the other is that Moore's Law alone can no longer deliver sufficient gains from one generation of processor to the next.

To get the performance they need, companies like Rackspace and Google need the flexibility to rethink how their servers are designed, he said, including finding new ways to combine memory, I/O, and accelerator chips like GPUs.

That's easier with Power than with x86, he said, because IBM has opened the platform and removed licensing restrictions that otherwise make it hard for a community of customers and vendors to design new systems together.

The announcement continues a new level of openness at Google, which used to be quite secretive about the newest technologies it used in its data centers. It now apparently feels collaboration is in its best interests.


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