Open Sesame: IBM Hoping OpenPOWER and Members Google, Rackspace Can Foster Intel Alternatives

By | December 22, 2014

Intel remains the brains behind most cloud and enterprise servers and having vanquished AMD is without materially significant challengers. That doesn’t mean Chipzilla can be complacent, since new competitors are trying to use the disruptive transition to hyper scale clouds to take a slice of its lucrative data center business. As I recently detailed, Intel’s performance and market lead, while real, can’t be taken for granted. ARM and its partners finally have a 64-bit, VM-ready architecture that promises to compete on scale out, power-sensitive workloads. While early products like the Applied Micro X-Gene system I mentioned are still early in their lifecycles and far from optimized, performance will only get much better. Indeed as Applied Micro’s VP of engineering Gaurav Singh subsequently pointed out to me, initial systems are designed for software porting not performance benchmarking. But ARM isn’t the only contender for cloud server sockets and it’s easy to forget that two other server platforms hope to infiltrate the next generation of hyper scale cloud data centers and that one, IBM POWER platform, is already widely used for mission critical enterprise applications. As I detail in this column, MIPS, the other anti-Intel is still mostly consigned to low-end embedded applications, however IBM is hoping to reenergize the POWER platform with help from others. If you can’t beat them, go open source and that’s what Big Blue has done via OpenPOWER.

The OpenPOWER consortium has been quietly toiling out of public scrutiny since its founding announcement last winter, which given the tech industry’s collective ADD isn’t a good thing. In hopes of getting back on IT’s radar and preempting its creeping anonymity, the foundation recently made some noise by announcing new members and 2015 plans. No, OpenPOWER isn’t just a debating society and has ambitious goals for the coming year, with 6 work groups developing technical specifications across the technology stack from chip design to cloud software and “dozens of products introduced and under development” by member organizations. Yet the big news isn’t what the group plans to do, but who is now part of the team: former (and hopefully future) cloud heavyweight Rackspace. Rackspace is an important addition to a group that largely consists of component suppliers and ODMs since it’s both an important cloud service provider and potential bridge to two other significant cloud technology working groups: the Open Compute Project and OpenStack Foundation.

Outwardly Rackspace seems to be hedging its bets between competing open infrastructure projects, however as the column points out, the key Rackspace liaison to both OpenPOWER and Open Compute, Aaron Sullivan, sees them as complementary. Unlike Compute Compute, which focuses more on system packaging (rack and chassis design, electrical distribution, system module interconnection), Sullivan says OpenPOWER allows developers to design and modify system boards, firmware, even new processors. He adds that the raw technology IBM has opened up is significant, “IBM has contributed an enormous amount of IP in the chip and firmware space.”

OpenPOWER Members Suggest Tantalizing Possibilities

Aside from Big Blue, OpenPOWER has attracted some important technology companies as top, Platinum-level sponsors, but none more significant than Google. Indeed, a Googler chairs the board. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, Google’s Senior Director of hardware platforms, Gordon MacKean wasn’t willing to discuss the firm’s use of or plans for POWER platforms, although he posted about its customer POWER8 motherboard on Google+. Google uses the board as a development platform to port its software to the POWER architecture and as MacKean told me, hyper scale cloud workloads and applications are incredibly diverse, implying that some are better suited to the POWER architecture than x86. “Architectural choice is good,” says MacKean adding “the Foundation creates another viable option to choose from.”


MacKean showing off Google’s custom POWER8 motherboard.

IBM has seen what happens to proprietary processor architectures developed and used by a single vendor and in OpenPOWER has taken an important, strategic step to avoid becoming the next Alpha, SPARC or Itanium. Indeed, OpenPOWER is the last, best hope for maintaining POWER processor viability and growing it into a realistic Intel alternative for cloud servers, but on that metric it’s impossible to judge success or failure at this point. Google or Rackspace using IBM-designed and build (through foundries) POWER8 chips won’t move the needle on Intel’s server market share unless it’s followed by a groundswell of support from other hyperscalers like Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft. Don’t hold your breath unless OpenPOWER leads to disruptive hardware innovation. 

Tyan OpenPOWER reference motherboard.

Tyan OpenPOWER reference motherboard.

The real potential of OpenPOWER will only be realized if and when people design custom SoCs using POWER cores and that exploit  CAPI (Coherent Accelerator Processor Interface), the architecture’s elegant support for hardware coprocessors, to offload and accelerate various functions. Although OpenPOWER now makes this possible, it’s far from an easy task and neither MacKean or Sullivan would comment on when or if we’ll see custom POWER-based silicon of the type that has made ARM the leader in mobile devices. 


IBM POWER multi-chip module used in System Z mainframes. Source: author

It’s unclear whether OpenPOWER and its growing community will jump-start the POWER architecture into a realistic Intel competitor for hyperscale cloud data centers, but by opening the kimono and revealing circuit, interface and firmware details, OpenPOWER has the opportunity to catalyze meaningful, disruptive innovation.