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IBM opens up Power design, partners with Google

Agam Shah | Aug. 7, 2013
The two vendors and others form the OpenPower Consortium to push the chip design to new products.

Third parties could release new system-on-chips based on Power in a few years, McCredie said, adding that the design cycle lasts two years or more. The Power IP is also being opened up to manufacturers, and IBM will continue to make chips for third parties.

OpenPower will be beneficial to IBM and its partners, as it will breed collaboration and innovation, and also help IBM go into new markets, McCredie said.

One of those markets is cloud computing, which is dominated by x86 chips from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices. IBM's Power chips are mostly used in mainframes and high-performance servers, but the company has been taking steps to move the chips into medium-range and low-end servers. IBM in the past year has lowered the price of some Flex Systems and preconfigured PureSystems servers, both of which use x86 and Power chips, and has also configured servers for cloud and virtualization deployments.

Mega data centers established by Google, Facebook and Amazon mostly use servers with x86 chips, but there is a growing interest in low-power ARM processors, which are mainly used in smartphones and tablets. Many believe that ARM servers will be quick and more power-efficient at handling quick-moving cloud transactions such as search requests and social network posts.

IBM's Power architecture brings more reliability, processing power and longevity to servers in cloud deployments, McCredie said, adding that the company is targeting the growing Asia market through the new OpenPower alliance.

The Power architecture and chips will continue to be developed for data centers, and likely not go in the direction of smartphone and tablet chips such as Intel's Atom x86 chips or ARM, McCredie said. IBM's Power chip design for servers is not the same as Power designs being used in microcontrollers from companies like Freescale Semiconductor.

McCredie said that opening up the Power architecture is also complementary to the Facebook-backed Open Compute Project, which focuses mostly on server designs.

IBM has been trying to push the Power architecture into other applications for many years, but rather than growing in opportunity, the market for the chip has been shrinking, said Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research.

"IBM's only success has been in the big iron mainframes and servers, but that market has also been shrinking for years as companies slowly migrate their software over to other hardware and software platforms, such as x86 and Linux. The biggest issue has always been with the software," McGregor said.

The move could be viewed as a desperate attempt to keep Power alive, but there is an opportunity for chips based on the architecture in data centers, McGregor said.

"There have always been and will always be room for multiple architectures in servers because of the varying workloads and power-performance requirements," McGregor said.


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