IBM is using an ARM-like approach with its Power chip architecture as it looks to take on Intel and its ambitious plans to grow its reach in the data center.
Big Blue will license its Power processors to other companies, enabling them to build their own servers, networking systems and storage appliances based on IBM’s architecture, company officials said Aug. 6. As part of the effort, IBM is working with the likes of Google and Nvidia to launch the OpenPower Consortium to help create a hardware and software ecosystem around the Power architecture as it looks to give organizations an alternative to Intel’s x86 chips in cloud computing and hyperscale data center environments.
The move comes as trends such as the cloud, big data, analytics and mobility are fueling rapid changes in the data center, where demand is growing for more powerful, dense and highly energy-efficient servers to fill out organizations’ scale-out environments.
It also comes during a difficult time for IBM’s Power business, which saw revenues in the second quarter fall 24 percent. However, company officials note that the business continues to beat other Unix server vendors—in particular Hewlett-Packard and Oracle—in the space and that IBM is looking to expand Power even more in the Linux market. In addition, IBM also expects the Power 7+-based systems to perform well as the year goes on.
Now the company is turning toward businesses that are running large cloud data centers that house huge numbers of servers. It’s an area that’s being fiercely contested by the likes of Intel, Advanced Micro Devices and ARM and its various chip partners, including Calxeda, Marvell Technology and—eventually—AMD and Samsung.
With Power, IBM brings another option that comes with a data center heritage, rather than architectures with a history in the client market, according to Tom Rosamilia, senior vice president of IBM’s Systems and Technology group. Through the OpenPower consortium, IBM will license its Power intellectual property to companies that want to use it in servers for cloud data centers.
“Up until now, IBM primarily used the Power design in its own servers,” Rosamilia wrote in a post on IBM’s blog. “This new initiative makes it possible for cloud services and their technology providers to redesign the chips and circuit boards where computing is done—optimizing the interactions of microprocessors, memory, networking, data storage and other components. As a result, they can get servers that are custom-tuned for their applications.”
The OpenPower group, which reportedly will focus on the upcoming Power 8 technology, initially will include IBM, Google, Nvidia, Tyan and Mellanox.
“Combining our talents and assets around the Power architecture can greatly increase the rate of innovation throughout the industry,” Steve Mills, senior vice president and group executive for IBM’s Software and Systems unit, said in a statement. “Developers now have access to an expanded and open set of server technologies for the first time. This type of ‘collaborative development’ model will change the way data center hardware is designed and deployed.”
One of the first efforts will be integrating Nvidia’s CUDA graphics technology into IBM’s Power ecosystems, according to IBM officials.
An Intel spokesperson said the company is confident that the efforts it’s making now in the data center will create challenges for other vendors looking to muscle their way into the space.
“Data centers around the world today run on Intel architecture, so companies clearly recognize the business value Intel brings,” the spokesperson said in an email. “We don’t take these things lightly, but it’s important to remember that there is large and growing ecosystem around our technology. As we continue to innovate and offer custom alternatives, we believe it will be increasingly difficult for other architectures to compete.”
IBM Creates Power Consortium to Take on Intel
Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst with Insight64, said it won’t be easy for IBM. Such efforts—where a company starts licensing what had been a proprietary technology to third parties—tend to fail after those third parties don’t see a level playing field. In this case, IBM will continue to make Power chips and put them its own servers, creating an environment where it will compete with the products its licensees build. Brookwood said he felt the same way when Nvidia in June announced it would license it graphics cores.
That’s the key difference with ARM’s business model. ARM licenses its chip designs to other chip makers, which put their own technology on top of the design and then contracts with a foundry to build them. But ARM doesn’t make its own chips, so it doesn’t compete with its partners, Brookwood said.
In addition, IBM will find itself in a crowded market, particularly once ARM’s 64-bit ARMv8 architecture begins appearing in systems next year.
“They’re a little late to the party,” Brookwood told eWEEK. “These days all the momentum is behind ARM, and I don’t think IBM will be able to change that.”
However, Joe Clabby, an analyst with Clabby Analytics, isn’t so sure. Clabby noted that Power is a strong architecture for analytics and the cloud, and that right now, it could give organizations an option other than Intel and AMD’s x86 offerings.
“No single processor does everything,” he told eWEEK. “If that’s true, then you need an alternative to x86.”
Given its capabilities and the amount of innovation IBM does around Power, that architecture could be the x86 alternative.
Clabby also warned against writing off Power even after some difficult quarters. IBM officials spent a lot of time and effort over the past few years taking Unix customers away from HP and its Intel Itanium-based system and Oracle’s SPARC unit. While that business has begun to slow, IBM still has still has room to run in such areas as the cloud and big data, as well as with an increasingly improving Watson platform.
This isn’t the first time IBM has worked to create an ecosystem around Power. Some seven years ago, the company helped found Power.Org, an organization that has worked to create a software ecosystem around the architecture, though some of that related to game consoles, which until recently had run on Power technology. Now the console makers have adopted AMD products.