Non-IBM Power8 servers, chips to appear early next year

Servers, chips and components are under development as part of third-party licensing deals

The first third-party servers licensed to use IBM's Power architecture will be on the market early next year.

IBM last year started licensing the architecture so other companies could build Power servers, chips and components. The first third-party Power servers will be for cloud and high-end applications, said Ken King, general manager, OpenPower alliances at IBM's Systems and Technology Group.

Ultimately, low-end servers could use Power chips, but that's for server makers to decide, King said. Derivative Power8 chips being designed outside IBM could be used in third-party servers, King said. However, a timeline for third-party Power8 chips hitting the market has not been confirmed, IBM said.

IBM's Power hardware has been used in the Linux-based Watson supercomputer, which beat humans in the TV quiz show "Jeopardy." But IBM's Power server shipments have declined in recent years as buyers move to commodity hardware running on x86 chips. IBM agreed to sell its x86 server business to Lenovo for US$2.3 billion and is now focusing exclusively on the Power architecture.

The non-IBM Power servers will compete with IBM's high-end System Z and customized PureSystem offerings. But King didn't seem concerned about that, saying the reason for licensing Power to other vendors is so that the architecture will proliferate in more servers.

"It's about making Power relevant in the marketplace," King said.

Mainframes and IBM's Power are fading away, so the company had to start licensing the chip architecture, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64.

"More important for the company is to get Power out into the larger IT industry, [to] show that its got a place outside its homegrown systems," Brookwood said.

IBM last year formed the OpenPower Alliance to cooperate with other companies on hardware and software development for the Power architecture. OpenPower members include Google and Tyan, which have already shown developer boards based on the Power8 architecture. Other notable members include Samsung and Micron, which are developing memory, and Nvidia, which is developing graphics chips.

IBM recognised Power's struggles and made a smart move by opening it up to other companies, said Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT.

IBM may lose Power server shipments to competition, but there could be revenue from licensing, services and system deployments. Power could find some acceptance in high-performance and cloud computing. Pund-IT's King said.

"One thing Power is effective at as compared to x86 is the ability to support a larger number of virtual machines in a concurrent system. Power CPUs support classic reliability, availability and serviceability features that IBM servers are well known for," King said.

Google was perhaps intrigued by the higher level of virtual machines supported by Power compared to x86 systems, King said.

"That could translate to better VM performance and responsiveness to cloud requests," King said.

But IBM still faces an uphill battle in getting server makers to move to Power, Brookwood said.

Server infrastructure is too invested in x86 and companies will be hesitant to move to a new architecture. That requires developing software, which takes time, money and resources, Brookwood said.

"The problem with computing systems on a shrinking user and application base is they go away. It happened to DEC Alpha, Tandem NonStop, it's happened to dozens of systems," Brookwood said.

Sun Microsystems, now owned by Oracle, opened up its Sparc microarchitecture through OpenSparc, but it didn't work out. Hewlett-Packard is also moving away from the Itanium chip and providing a path to migrate to x86 chips.

But if IBM plays its cards right, there's a chance Power can live on.

"To ensure the longevity of Power8 is to get other people to use it and develop on it," Brookwood said.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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