IBM is joining forces with Google and other high-tech firms in a push to license its Power chip architecture as it pursues a licensing model similar to ARM. Called OpenPower Consortium, IBM will now allow companies to design their own system around the Power technology, previously only used in its own server systems.
Google, Mellanox, Nvidia and server manufacturer Tyan are among some of the tech firms that have signed on to the alliance. The OpenPower push aims to offer an alternative to AMD and Intel's x86 chip architecture. IBM's OpenPower Consortium is also an attempt to mirror ARM's business model, in which ARM licenses its technology to system builders and chip suppliers and doesn't manufacturer chips itself. IBM said it has no plans to stop making its own Power server chips.
IBM, like ARM, is trying to break into a growing server niche of energy-efficient chips that go into a new breed of servers that save space and minimize power consumption. IBM said the move is also an attempt to capitalize on a growing trend among data center operators who design their own hardware rather than buy commodity hardware off the shelf.
"Under the OpenPower initiative, IBM will license the core intellectual property for our Power technologies to other companies for use in designing servers employed in cloud data centers," wrote Tom Rosamilia, senior vice president of IBM's Systems and Technology Group, in a blog post. "Up until now, IBM primarily used the Power design in its own servers. 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."
Google, the consortium's biggest member, said in a statement that OpenPower has the "potential to establish Power architecture as a viable option for applications running within Google's datacenters."
Richard Doherty, research director at The Envisioneering Group, said Google, the world's largest server user, and its support instantly give IBM Power's licensing plan a head start. "Google is going to be building more servers in the next three years than it has in the past eight years," Doherty said. Google was light on its exact Power architecture plans.
Other partners such as Nvidia, which already licenses the ARM architecture, are less likely to become Power chip makers. Nvidia, as well as others, will likely use the "open" technology to fuse its own Nvidia GPUs with Power-based servers. "This puts a lot of pressure on Intel and AMD to have a better road map with power-efficient processors that can compete with Power and ARM," Doherty said.
IBM said the OpenPower Consortium is not limiting the licensing of any particular Power chip technology, and it's focused on next year's Power8 chip. IBM said it plans to discuss Power8 later this month.
IBM's Bradley McCredie, an IBM fellow and vice president and CTO of IBM's Systems Technology Group, said licensing will bring in more revenue for its investment in Power. That's something IBM-watchers say Big Blue desperately needs for its server business.
In April, IBM CFO Mark Loughridge, identified its Power chip business as "underperforming" in its first-quarter earnings call. IBM is also reportedly in active negotiations to sell its x86 server hardware business, with Lenovo topping the list of potential buyers.
IBM's server business has been in decline for the past year. In its second-quarter financials, IBM reported that sales of its Power-based systems declined 25 percent compared to the year prior. According to preliminary second-quarter server share data obtained by CRN ahead of Gartner's official release, IBM's global server shipments are down 9.4 percent compared to the same time last year. The large decrease, Gartner said, was due to sagging x86 server sales.
IDC reported that x86 servers in 2012 accounted for 98 percent of global shipments. Energy-efficient servers running Power and ARM processors could give the server market new life, Doherty said. Developers are attracted by the highly customizable architecture of Power systems, along with the significant power-saving potential, he said.
PUBLISHED AUGUST 6, 2013