OpenPower Wants to Be Intel Alternative Here and in China

The server gear the consortium unveiled at the OpenPower Summit showed the speed of innovation that open development can bring, officials say.

data center

The stars of the first-ever OpenPower Foundation Summit this week were 15 pieces of hardware, lined up onstage as proof points of the speedy innovation happening within the 15-month-old consortium.

The hardware—including servers, developer platforms, adapter cards and silicon—represented the broad range of companies that make up the 110-member group, which includes IBM, Nvidia, Google, Rackspace and Mellanox Technologies. Member vendors that may not be household names include Cirrascale, Inspur, Tyan and Nallatech.

OpenPower officials said the gear they were showing is a clear indication that OpenPower will become the primary alternative to dominant player Intel in the data center, and that the contest will be as much about business models as it is about products.

In addition, OpenPower intends to become a significant technology presence in the booming Chinese market, where the government is urging the country’s tech industry to leverage products from Chinese companies. Several of the pieces of hardware on display at the summit were from Chinese companies like ChuangHe and Inspur (servers), Zoom Netcom (server board), and Suzhou PowerCore, which worked with IBM to develop the CP1, a Power-based chip for the Chinese market.

The officials also spoke about the 31-member China Power Technology Alliance (CPTA), which is using the Power processor architecture to build tech products in China. An official with Suzhou PowerCore told attendees at the summit, which was held in San Jose, Calif., that the "CPTA's goals are to bring Power technology to China, develop a processor technology that is locally 'controllable,' and transform the server business in China into a 100% local stack, as an alternative to Intel," Roger Kay, principal analyst with Endpoint Technologies Associates, wrote in a column for Forbes.

It's the push to become that Intel alternative that is the driving force behind OpenPower, which launched in December 2013 after IBM decided to open up its Power architecture as a way to extend its reach and address performance and power efficiency needs in hyper-scale and Web-scale data center environments. Meeting those demands is about speed and efficiency around innovation, and that is done best through open development and building a community, rather than keeping all design, development and manufacturing within a single company, according to Brad McCredie, IBM Fellow, vice president of IBM Power systems and president of the OpenPower Foundation. The technology on display at the event showed how well the open development model can work, McCredie said during the summit, which ran in conjunction with the GPU Technology Conference 2015 hosted by Nvidia.

"Here are 15 pieces of hardware that were put together in less than a year," he said. "It's an incredible amount of productivity in a short amount of time."

Intel will have an increasingly difficult time keeping up with the speed of innovation that an organization like OpenPower will have, McCredie said. He expects organizations will understand this message.

"You no longer have to rely on x86 and one vendor," he said. "Today, the limits of the x86 architecture are profound. The sole reliance on a tick-tock approach to processor development isn't working anymore."

The rise of what McCredie calls "warehouse-scale computing"—where companies like Google and Facebook operate massive data centers running a huge number of servers—is opening up opportunities for new architectures and business models to challenge Intel's dominance. ARM and its chip-making partners are looking to push its low-power architecture—which is found in most smartphones and tablets—into the data center. Imagination Technologies is trying to do the same thing via the prpl Foundation to drive its MIPS architecture.