IBM Sees Open Source as Road to Bolstering Chip Biz

Although it lost Apple, IBM is searching out new customers through a more open approach.

IBM, having thrown open its Power chip architecture, is becoming the new pied piper for open-source chips.

The companys chip group is now looking to create a specification for open, Power-based servers and is also moving to open Cell, the chip architecture it developed along with Sony Corp. and Toshiba Corp.

The efforts build on IBMs 2004 open Power initiative, which led to it establishing, a virtual community around the architecture that now counts nearly 30 companies—11 of which joined this week at its confab in Barcelona, Spain—and about 6,000 developers as members.

At its most basic element, is virtual bazaar, where companies can choose a Power-based processor core, add various elements of their own or from third parties, and then secure design and manufacturing services, thus avoiding the need to create systems from the ground up.

IBM moved toward the open model because it says chip performance is getting harder to boost using traditional methods such as introducing more advanced materials or manufacturing techniques. Open chips, the company says, can foster performance gains by improving the design of overall systems, because numerous parties can work more closely together on hardware, software and tuning.

"Its getting harder to do. That means that integration of the overall system is becoming the greater determinant of overall performance—not just from technology aspect, but a from a business angle," said Nigel Beck, vice president of technology marketing at IBM.

IBM has a business angle as well. First, the company aims to make its two chip architectures more popular.

The move could help PowerPC compete more effectively with architectures such as ARM and MIPS. ARM Ltd. and MIPS Technologies Inc. control the two architectures, but they licensed them widely in areas such as communications and consumer electronics.

IBM, which Apple Computer Inc. dealt a blow to on Monday by saying it would switch to Intel Corp. chips in time, also aims to compete with x86 processors from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. in areas such as low-cost servers.

In addition, as the chief steward of Power and Cell, IBM can gain by providing services to open chip users. It offers to help design, manufacture and even build the chips into devices. Design and manufacturing services have become one of the main thrusts of IBMs chip business over the past few years.

/zimages/3/28571.gifWith Apple and IBM going their separate ways, the PowerPC has questionable future development. Click here to read more.

"Thats one of the knocks on the original PowerPC. There were only two companies creating it," said Kevin Krewell, editor-in-chief of the Microprocessor Report. They include IBM and Freescale Semiconductor Inc., formerly Motorola Inc.s chip arm, which both worked with Apple to create PowerPC. IBMs Power and PowerPC chips share the same basic underpinnings.

"Its trying to create some more innovation on the PowerPC side. IBM cant do it all," Krewell said. "It needs more variety and it needs more vendors supplying the ecosystem, as [IBM] would say."

Indeed, seeks to make it easier for companies to work together to create devices, Beck said.

"Were working on things like, can we as a Power architecture community come up with a standard reference architecture for what we call high-volume server?"

Next page: Cell has even broader possibilities.