IBM Unveils Brawny New Power8 Servers, Says Third Parties Are Building On Power Chips

IBM unveiled the first servers that run its new Power8 processors Wednesday, touting them as capable of handling the rigors of big data and high-performance computing apps.

But this was no ordinary product launch. IBM spent much of a one-hour press conference in San Francisco touting the growth of the OpenPOWER Foundation, an industry consortium it launched with Google, Nvidia and others last December that aims to get third-party software and hardware vendors building their technology around the Power processor architecture.

The OpenPOWER Foundation is "now open for business" with firmware, Linux OS support, hypervisor and development tools in place, Gordon MacKean, engineering director for Google's platform group and chairman of OpenPOWER, said at the press conference.

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OpenPOWER is a way to break down barriers between server computing components, fixing bottlenecks that exist between networking, memory subsystems, I/O, storage and app acceleration technology, MacKean said.

While Google runs much of its operations on low-end x86 server hardware running specialized software, MacKean said the search giant is "investigating" whether IBM's Power architecture is suitable for its workload needs.

"We see OpenPOWER as an opportunity to launch the third generation of warehouse-scale computing," said MacKean.

OpenPOWER, which began with five vendors five months ago, now has 26 member companies, including high-profile newcomers Samsung and Hitachi.

OpenPOWER co-founder Nvidia is planning to bring CUDA software support to its GPUs with IBM Power chips in the fourth quarter. The chip maker also is working with IBM on NVlink, a technology that speeds the sharing of data between GPUs and CPUs, opening the door to high-performance big data and scientific apps.

Server motherboard maker Tyan, another founding OpenPOWER member, is contributing a white-box server reference design, with IBM, Google and Canonical pitching in on firmware and operating system development.

Similar to the approach ARM Holdings uses in the mobile device market, the OpenPOWER Foundation makes its hardware and software intellectual property available for third-party vendors to license.

"People can literally take the IP, and the licensing model, and do derivative work," Tom Rosamilia, head of IBM's Systems and Technology Group, said at the event. "They can contribute it back or keep it to themselves. They've got the freedom to innovate."

IBM said it spent three years and $2.4 billion in R&D on the five new servers running its Power8 processor. At the event, Doug Balog, general manager of IBM Power Systems, said the servers are tuned for faster compute, memory and bandwidth performance, making them ideal for big data apps.

Balog also said the Power8 processors offer 20 percent to 30 percent better price for performance than their Intel x86 counterparts.

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In addition to boosting Power server sales, IBM is hoping the open approach will help it take a bite out of Intel's dominant share of the server processor market. To increase its odds, IBM also is investing $1 billion over the next five years to encourage Linux development on Power servers.

The new Power8 servers support Ubuntu Server and Ubuntu OpenStack, and will support KVM virtualization sometime this quarter, Balog said. IBM's expanded Linux support will make it easier to move apps from Intel x86 servers to Power servers, he added.

Brett Murphy, Power brand manager at SIS, a Zionsville, Ind.-based IBM partner, said IBM's expanded Linux and virtualization support for Power8 servers will enable the company to more effectively solve customers' issues.

"I think you're seeing IBM becoming more open at the same time as the competition is becoming more closed," Murphy told CRN.

While Power processors aren't going to displace Intel from the enterprise market, they do offer considerable performance advantages, such as support for eight processor threads per core, Jeff Guenthner, director of solutions architecture at CMI, a Mill Valley, Calif.-based IBM partner, told CRN in an interview after the event.

"IBM Power processors are so much more powerful than Intel, so you can stuff more workloads on it and get more value from it," Guenthner said.

Power processors also should help IBM take a chunk out of Intel's high-performance computing (HPC) business, according to Guenthner. "HPC has been dominated by Intel because it offered the best performance for price. Now Power chips are going to be priced comparable to x86 chips, and the customers will choose."

"With Power, IBM has a solid chance to give Intel a run for its money in this space," Guenthner said. "In the next five to 10 years, we're going to see companies emerge that make Power systems that are not solely IBM technology."

In a Q&A after the event, IBM executives acknowledged that while ARM has a similar licensing model that lets third parties innovate on its platform, its technology isn't ready for prime time in the enterprise data center.

"The technology we have is ready to go do that right now," IBM's Rosamilia said of OpenPOWER. "You can take a motherboard, add a hypervisor and run 64-bit apps. ARM can't do that and I think it will be a while [before it can]."

IBM also believes its approach of letting third parties license OpenPOWER technology is something that isn’t possible with Intel chips. "You can do a derivative processor based on Power," said Balog. "You can only get an Intel chip from one company last time I checked."