IBM's Efforts at Openness Paying Dividends, Company Executive Says

Server GM Doug Balog says the tech vendor's OpenPower and Linux-on-Power initiatives are opening up new opportunities in a number of different areas.

IBM executive

Red Hat hosted its annual conference last week in San Francisco, bringing together many of the leaders in the broad open-source community to mix with the thousands of developers and users of open technology.

Among the Gold Sponsors of the three-day show was IBM, with signs located throughout the event and executives walking the hallways. IBM is no stranger to the open-source effort, having worked with Linux and other communities by contributing to Linux and other technologies and running Linux solutions on its hardware.

But about two years ago, the company made a concerted drive to expand its push into open technologies on its Power architecture, which up to that point had primarily been a proprietary platform. However, in short order, IBM sold its low-end x86 server business to Lenovo for $2.3 billion and launched the OpenPower Foundation, an effort to extend the reach of its Power chip architecture in the data center by enabling other vendors to build products off of it.

The company has embraced a wide range of open-source efforts, from the Facebook-led Open Compute Project (OCP) and OpenStack to other open-source software projects. At the same time, the company already was working in a number of areas—such as the cloud, big data and cognitive computing through its work with the Watson systems—that in many ways were being driven by open-source technologies.

Leading the effort for IBM has been Doug Balog, general manager of the company's Power server business, including its Linux-on-Power work. And over the past two years, IBM has taken significant strides in its open-source push, starting with the Power8 chip, Balog told eWEEK. Company officials expect that to continue with Power9, which is due out next year.

The move toward Linux and other open-source technologies made sense, given the direction of the worldwide server market, he said. IBM is the top Unix server vendor with more than 50 percent of the market, but it's a shrinking space as more workloads are migrated to systems running on Intel's x86 Xeon chips. IDC analysts last month said that in the first quarter, revenue for x86 servers jumped 2.6 percent over the same period in 2015, while those for non-x86 systems—not only those running on Power and Oracle SPARC chips, but also servers powered by Intel's Itanium processors and IBM's mainframes—fell 28.7 percent, accounting for about 14.7 percent of the overall server space.

"We knew the direction proprietary systems are going," Balog said, adding that the Linux server space is a $20 billion market opportunity. "The Linux server opportunity is just going to grow and grow over the next several years."

IBM will continue to play in high-end Unix space and compete with the likes of Oracle and its line of SPARC-based servers. But the open-source path, with Linux, OpenPower and other efforts, holds the promise of making significant inroads in such areas as the cloud and data analytics. In addition, it enables IBM to better compete in data centers against Intel.

Intel holds more than 95 percent of the overall server market, but both IBM and ARM are competing to become the top alternative to Intel in the data center. Businesses aren't necessarily looking to replace Intel, but want to have a second source of silicon to help keep prices down, drive innovation and protect them against problems in the supply chain.

"The industry always wants choice," Balog said. "Choice in the marketplace drives innovation."

IBM is seeing its open-source work paying off. In the two-plus years since launching OpenPower, the consortium has more than 200 members. At the first OpenPower Summit last year, the group had about 130 members and showed off fewer than 20 OpenPower-based systems and components. At this year's summit, there were almost 60 products on display. In addition, officials noted more than 2,300 applications run on Linux on Power.