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 Power.org, a virtual community around the architecture that now counts nearly 30 companies—11 of which joined this week at its Power.org confab in Barcelona, Spain—and about 6,000 developers as members.
At its most basic element, Power.org 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 Power.org 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.
“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, Power.org 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?”
That reference architecture, which is still being hammered out, would form a guideline for how to build a PowerPC-based server. It would likely recommend various chips, motherboards and other hardware, and help others create software for them. As part of IBMs vision, Power.org members would contribute all of the bits and pieces, including Linux-based operating systems, allowing companies seeking to create an open Power server to choose from among them.
Companies are “looking for the ability to select different processor architectures for servers,” Beck said. “And we also see people come in with particular application types.”
Cell, which is brand new, has even broader possibilities as far as IBM is concerned. First and foremost, however, IBM wants to make Cell accessible to a broader set of players in the industry.
“Were just now working out with the broader community where we can take this architecture,” Beck said. “It has proved so promising in the application work with Sony that we dont really know what its limitations are yet.”
IBM sees applications in computers for the aerospace, defense and health care industries, among others, Beck said.
Mainly, “IBM wants to avoid being boxed into game platforms,” Krewell said. “It needs to go out and find out where it can take the technology and apply it to unique applications. There are a lot of chances for that. But theres still a lot of investigative work that needs to be done.”
Although Power.org has so far appealed to companies such as Xilinx Inc, which has added PowerPC cores to its Virtex II Pro Platform FPGA (field programmable gate array) chips, it wont be without challenges or competitors. Aside from ARM and MIPS, IBM also faces competition from open SPARC as well as more home-grown options from organizations such as opencores.org, an online clearinghouse for open processors.
Right now, the market for open-source chips is fairly limited, Krewell said.
“Its pretty much niche stuff, only because the open-source cores require a lot more engineering work. You have limited amount of support,” he said. “Its good if youre a small company and …youre willing to spend the time to make it work—or you dont have much to spend.”
Larger firms are more likely to license a core from a company that will provide them with support, such as MIPS or ARM or IBM.
But that might change if “IBM could be the safety net for people who want to do it on their own,” Krewell said.