An IBM project to widen the use of its Power server chips inched forward Wednesday with Big Blue trying to challenge Intel for a bigger role in the hyperscale data centers run by the likes of Google and Facebook.
It's a turnaround from the past decade, in which Intel's increasingly powerful Xeon chips have been eating away at IBM's Power business. Now, with a new strategy to license its Power design for use by other server makers, IBM is fighting back.
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Power processors are used today in IBM Unix servers that run back-end software from companies like IBM, SAP, and Oracle. That traditional Unix market has been in decline, so IBM also wants to position Power for Web and analytics applications in large, scale-out data centers.
IBM will continue to build Power servers as before, and it launched new systems Wednesday based on its new Power 8 chip. But it's enlisting other firms to help it win more business from large-scale online service providers in the U.S. and China.
Those companies buy a lot of hardware, but they increasingly want a say in how it's designed, and they want low-cost, no-frills "white box" systems. That's a different business model from IBM's, which is why it formed the OpenPower Foundation, an alliance mostly of vendors that now has 26 members.
Several of those members announced advances around Power on Wednesday. Nvidia said its GPUs will be able to act as accelerators in Power servers for the first time. Tyan, a motherboard maker, showed the first reference design for a white-box Power server. Component vendors Mellanox, Xilinx and Altera also disclosed advances around Power chips. Other members include Hitachi and Samsung.
Google is part of the effort, too, and worked with IBM and Canonical to develop open-source tools and firmware for Power systems. If IBM can secure Google as a customer, it would be a big vote of confidence, but right now Google is evaluating the hardware.
"We're going through a pretty detailed investigation of the Power architecture for the different types of workloads we see," Gordon MacKean, a Google engineering director, said at the OpenPower event Wednesday. He's also chairman of the OpenPower Foundation.
Google is attracted to the open, multivendor approach IBM is taking, MacKean said. "Google recognizes the amplifying effect of an open community," he said.
That openness is key, and it's not something IBM is doing by choice. Its own Power servers come bundled with costly software and services that aren't suited to the low-cost model of companies like Facebook and Google.
"Scale-out service providers aren't going to buy from IBM," said Patrick Moorhead, an analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy. "No matter how good the technology is, they'll want to buy it from someone with a different cost model."
That's why it's important for IBM to secure licensees for its Power chip. China's Suzhou PowerCore will be the first licensee, and it will help IBM tap into the big China market. But IBM will need more partners, including system builders to make Power servers.
"They're definitely still in the crawl stage," Moorhead said.