Rackspace Puts Intel Aside, Makes IBM OpenPower Pledge

Rackspace dealt a small but meaningful blow to Intel's iron-fisted grip on the server chip market, revealing Tuesday that it is supporting IBM's alternative OpenPower processor technology.

Rackspace also said it is joining a growing list of A-list technology companies such as Google, Nvidia and Samsung that have all thrown support behind the OpenPower Foundation and are committed to data center development around IBM's Power8 processor.

"From a Rackspace partner perspective, this doesn't mean that much to us," said Jeff Chandler, president of Fairfax, Va.-based American Technology Services, which is both a Rackspace and IBM partner. "For IBM, the fact they are adding Rackspace to its club says a lot about IBM and the progress they are making with Power8."

[Related: IBM Cheers $325M Supercomputer And OpenPower CPU Win]

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Rackspace revealed the news on its company blog Tuesday and said it was committed to developing an open server design leveraging the open compute developers' community. Rackspace said the move follows 18 months of working with other OpenPower Foundation members and that it was impressed by the consortium's commitment to build an open database server architecture.

Along with Rackspace, distributor Avnet said it would join the OpenPower Foundation, providing global channel distribution and integration services for members.

"Where open compute opened and revolutionized data center hardware and OpenStack opened up cloud software and Infrastructure-as-a-Service, OpenPower is doing the same for the last black boxes in our servers: chips, buses and firmware," wrote Aaron Sullivan, senior director and distinguished engineer, infrastructure strategy, at Rackspace, on the company's blog.

Founded in 2013, the OpenPower Foundation is committed to helping technology companies build Power-based scale-out systems based on Big Blue's Power8 chip technology. In October, IBM began shipping Power8-based Power System servers optimized for big data workloads and aimed squarely at giving Intel-class Xeon systems a run for their money.

The move is the latest among nearly 80 OpenPower Foundation members to reduce reliance on server chips from Intel, which owns nearly 98 percent of the server chip market, according to the most recent numbers reported by research firm IDC.

In the past year IBM's OpenPower Foundation has made big gains in grabbing attention among IT major league players and gained some market share. In April, Google blogged about a prototype server based on the Power processor. In August, Nvidia joined the OpenPower Foundation, saying it intends to build advanced server, networking, storage and GPU-acceleration technology aimed at delivering more choice, control and flexibility to developers of next-generation, hyperscale and cloud data centers.

Last month, IBM unveiled a $325 million deal with the U.S. Department of Energy to sell it next-gen supercomputers based on its Power8 CPUs.

The promise of IBM's Power8 processor coupled with the OpenPower Foundation is that consortium members will have an open chip architecture to tweak and customize for specific workloads. Customization would take place, not by OEMs, but by customers such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon, that are increasingly playing a larger role with ODMs designing massive numbers of servers for large scale-out data centers.

That stands in contrast to Intel's x86 server chip technology, which is not open. However, Intel has addressed criticism that it took a one-size-fits-all approach to processors with its latest Grantley-based E5-2600 v3 Xeon processors released in September. Intel unleashed 32 SKUs and an additional 20 custom SKUs designed for customers and their specific workload needs.

For IBM, Power8 represents a hardware stronghold for the company after it sold off its x86 server business to Lenovo earlier this year. The company is dealing with a rapidly falling market for servers built on RISC processors, which include the Power processors.

Research firm Gartner reports shipments of RISC-based servers fell about 4.5 percent last year, leading to a revenue decline of 31 percent. IBM was the only vendor to grow its RISC server shipments, with a year-over-year rise of 19 percent, but it still saw revenue for the line drop 29.8 percent during that time, according to Gartner.

"This deal between IBM and Rackspace will have zero impact on our partnership with Rackspace, but it's a positive sign that Rackspace is recognizing that this is a competitive and changing IT landscape," said Mike Hopkins, owner of DevSource, a Murray, Ky.-based Rackspace partner. "I can't fault them for exploring new options and broadening their IT horizons as they look toward the future."