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With OpenPower, IBM tries to turn the tables on Intel

James Niccolai | April 24, 2014
An IBM project to widen the use of its Power server chips inched forward Wednesday with Big Blue trying to challenge Intel for a bigger role in the hyperscale data centers run by the likes of Google and Facebook.

That's why it's important for IBM to secure licensees for its Power chip. China's Suzhou PowerCore will be the first licensee, and it will help IBM tap into the big China market. But IBM will need more partners, including system builders to make Power servers.

"They're definitely still in the crawl stage," Moorhead said.

Still, he likes the heterogeneous approach IBM is taking, allowing GPUs and other components to work with Power chips as first-class citizens. It's achieving this partly through a new interface technology called CAPI, which allows GPUs and FPGAs to link directly to the Power processor's memory.

IBM is mimicking the business model used by ARM, which has been successful designing processors for smartphones and tablets and licensing them to other companies for manufacture.

ARM is also gunning for the server market, but it's attacking it from the low end by offering power-efficient cores that aren't very powerful. There's been a lot of buzz around these "wimpy" cores, and IBM's OpenPower effort in some ways validates Intel's strategy by showing there is demand for "brawny" cores, too.

The bigger processors offer a much larger working memory space, which is useful for quickly analyzing large amounts of data. They also offer more compute threads per core and faster I/O bandwidth. For some workloads, bigger cores will be more cost-effective, Moorhead said.

Intel provides something like 90 percent of the CPUs in servers today, and its chips provide the backbone for hyperscale data centers. The company's not standing still, either. Its recently launched E7 v.2 processors triple the memory capacity of their predecessors, precisely one of the features companies like Google want.

IBM is determined that Power will have a bigger role to play, but it's aware there's a lot of development work to be done.

"Power is well-known for computers with doors on them," said Brad McCredie, IBM vice president of Power development, referring to the big cabinets that house its Power servers today. "You don't think of them as scale-out computers."

"We're taking that technology used to build computers with doors, we're decomposing it into its elements, and we're making it available to people to innovate," he said.

IBM is only giving up so much control of its server platform, however. While other companies can license its Power architecture, they won't be able to offer its AIX operating system; they'll have to use Linux.


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