IBM Building Power9 Ecosystem to Compete with Intel

IBM is seeing numerous projects under way using both Power8 and Power9, which was launched only last December. It published a list at OpenPower Summit detailing more than 100 solutions developed in partnerships with companies such as Google, Xilinx, Broadcom, Hitachi and others.

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LAS VEGAS -- It wasn't that long ago that established IT providers such as IBM, Microsoft, SAP, HP and Oracle all were busy working inside their own virtual fortresses, developing proprietary software or hardware, fending off the growing Linux and Apache trends--and generally eschewing the idea of community-type development.

That's pretty much all gone with the wind.

IBM was the first among these to come to its senses, realizing before the others that most really innovative ideas probably come from somewhere else in the world other than in your own building. It became involved in the open source community more than a decade ago with its DeveloperWorks community that gave birth to HyperLedger, among other projects.

Microsoft, under new CEO Satya Nadella (who took over in February 2014), has embraced Linux, OpenStack and other open source initiatives to a great extent (it still is a second-class citizen to Windows, however). Oracle (home of Java), HP and SAP also have seen the light and are building their own communities to help develop new products. Naturally, all these companies still guard their home-grown intellectual property with vigor, but their attitudes toward the open-source community have lightened tremendously in the last five years.

Power Chips Originally for Power Servers Only, but Not Anymore

IBM originally developed its Power chips to run only in its proprietary Power servers. However, the company four years ago—with such partners as Nvidia and Google—pivoted to help launch the OpenPower Foundation, enabling third parties to license the architecture to create their own Power-based systems. It was part of a larger effort to embrace open technologies—such as Linux, OpenStack and Facebook's Open Compute Project (OCP)—to include inside its Power architecture.

"The reason we did this is primarily because Moore's Law is dying," Ken King, General Manager of OpenPOWER for IBM's Systems Group, told eWEEK. "We used to get improvement in the performance of technology every 18 to 24 months, just from new processors coming in, and it would meet the needs of the industry. With the scaling down of processors from 22nm to 14nm to 7nm, you're seeing--instead of 2X (performance gain) every two years--more like 30 percent. It's flattening out big time.

"At the same time, consumption models are changing and data is exploding. And more and more clients are looking to get insights from their data. So you've got this situation where machine learning, AI, data analytics are maturing, data is exploding--because you have so many more places you can capture the data from, not just from systems of record within an enterprise--and all while Moore's Law is dying."

Getting Back on Track Alongside Moore's Law

The industry is looking for ways to get back on the Moore's Law track, King said.

"So the foundation opened up the Power architecture to open the firmware, the BIOS, open software on top of it--even open-sourcing the core chip--to enable interfaces that leverage other hardware capabilities to do acceleration--whether they're NICs, GPUs, FPGAs and other kinds of componentry," King said. "And what we're finding is that is having the effect we want to create the accelerator-based future of hardware.

"We now can compete with Power in the Linux market. When IBM had a closed architecture, it was IBM against the world. Now it's an ecosystem; you win with an army."

The community building is paying off, IBM said. At the first OpenPower Summit in 2016, the group had about 130 members. In 2017, that grew to more than 200. Now, OpenPower Foundation director Hugh Blemings told eWEEK, membership is up to 335 and counting, and the third OpenPower Summit here at the MGM Grand is loaded with attendees and companies presenting their goods and services.

Long List of New Projects with Power8 and Power9

IBM is seeing numerous projects under way with both Power8 and Power9, which was launched only last December. IBM published a list March 19 detailing more than 100 solutions developed in partnerships with companies such as Google, Xilinx, Broadcom, Hitachi, Cavium, HortonWorks, Nvidia, Chinese system maker Inspur, MapD and several others.

Previously, Google and Rackspace announced a project called Zaius, in which they are working on a dual-socket OpenPower-based server design powered by Power9 and that will include OpenCAPI and Nvidia's NVLink connectivity, DDR4 memory and the CAPI acceleration technology. The companies have contributed the design to the Facebook-led OCP. IBM also is working with Nvidia and original design manufacturer (ODM) Wistron to build a next-generation Power8 system for HPC environments.

So there is lots of traction a mere three months into Power9's reign as king of the IBM processor hill. In fact, the main message from OpenPower Summit 2018 is that Power9 is here, it works as well as advertised, and the ecosystem is using it to great advantage.

King is responsible for building and managing the ecosystem of partners working with IBM on top of the POWER architecture.  This includes chip, system, ODM, OEM and software partners globally, in addition to go-to-market channel development and government partnerships.

Intel Still the Dominant Player in This Market

IBM has a long way to go in order to crack into Intel's years of dominance in the server chip industry. Intel owns about 97 percent of the server chip market.

In fact, Intel has enjoyed a virtual monopoly in the server chip market in recent years, with a market share of near 99 percent during some of those years. Its x86 chips are the standard and haven't faced any real competition from Advanced Micro Devices, the only other x86 chip maker.

IBM's initial strategy is about selling to the big power users first. King said that IBM has the leading server makers in Europe (Bull Atos), Japan (Hitachi), China (Inspur) and one of the major OEMs (Wistron)--which talked onstage March 19 about all of its  implementations of Power9--aboard the Power9 train. IBM also has a number of component providers (such as Xilinx, Broadcom and Microsemi) committed to Power9.

"Most of the solutions we're showing today (at OpenPower Summit) are not from IBM, they're from companies in our ecosystem," King said. "That's OK--the objective is to increase the penetration of the architecture.

"I like to use the analogy that if there's one boat in the water, but the tide is going down, you're screwed. But if the tide is going up, there's plenty of room for multiple boats to rise with the tide. And the multiple boats are helping the tide go up."

eWEEK writer Jeff Burt contributed to this report.

Chris Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger is Editor of Features & Analysis at eWEEK, responsible in large part for the publication's coverage areas. In his 12 years and more than 3,900 stories at eWEEK, he...