Select Page

The first OpenPOWER Summit, held last week in San Jose, CA (March 16-March 19, 2015), drew attention to the work of the OpenPOWER Foundation, which is building an ecosystem around IBM’s POWER8 processor.

The Summit was held in the same place and time as NVIDIA’s GPU Technology Conference (GTC), partly because NVIDIA’s GPUs can be packaged with an IBM POWER8 processor on a system-board level, enabling advanced analytics and data visualization. NVIDIA is also a member of the OpenPOWER Foundation.

The OpenPOWER Foundation, created last year by IBM, Google, Mellanox, NVIDIA, Tyan and several other vendors, has grown to include more than 110 members – including hardware and software vendors, and large customer sites.

All of them see OpenPOWER platforms as a new alternative building block for the datacenter, with a focus on market segments that are seeking more competition in computing platforms. Generating much of the news was the first cohort of OpenPOWER systems, revealed on Day One of the conference—all of them based on the open-hardware specifications for IBM’s POWER8 architecture.

Membership includes providers of servers, storage and networking equipment, along with cloud-services providers, research laboratories, and systems vendors outside the U.S. looking to build customized systems and secure systems. Among the member organizations: RackSpace, China Powercore, Mellanox, Ubuntu, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

At the Heart of OpenPOWER

At the heart of the OpenPOWER Foundation are companies that build and modify their own systems, or customize them for special purposes. Through the OpenPOWER Foundation, IBM is licensing its POWER8 architecture specifications, and software toolsets that will allow members to do the customizing and optimization they seek, via firmware changes and interfaces to other hardware.

Last week also saw IBM and the OpenPOWER Foundation encouraging ISVs to join a growing ecosystem of software companies that are porting their applications, databases and software tools to the OpenPOWER Platform. IBM is providing use of IBM’s cloud services to software developers, as well as loaner hardware for development, testing and certification of ISV software for OpenPOWER.

As of the April, 2014, launch of new IBM systems based on POWER8 12-core processors, IBM said it had invested $2.4 billion in that POWER8 architecture, which is known primarily for its use in IBM’s POWER-based servers and storage products. Now, the Foundation is working to expand adoption of this technology beyond traditional enterprise datacenters that have deployed IBM’s POWER systems.

With OpenPOWER, the same multi-core POWER technology is finding its way into a range of cloud servers, customized systems, medical appliances and analytics engines. Two key technologies for OpenPOWER are the CAPI interface and NVLink for high-speed networking. Support for those features is to ship later this year.

Drivers for Adoption

Drivers for OpenPOWER are clear:  The companies are looking to bring customized, differentiated systems to market, leveraging intellectual property (IP) for IBM’s POWER8 architecture, and members ranging from Google (with a GoGCC programming language), Ubuntu (Linux distro), NVIDIA (GPUs), Mellanox (high-speed interconnects), Tyan (server systems) and others.

 

We believe the drivers include the following:

 

Competition: There is a set of vendors and customers that want to see increased competition between Intel and IBM, between Intel Xeon and POWER – and have for a long time. Many have wanted to see ARM processors take on more workloads.

 

Customization: Specifications for the processor, the firmware and the interfaces licensed by the OpenPOWER Foundation will be used to differentiate products for the datacenter. By accessing the intellectual property (IP), OpenPOWER participants will build new products that they plan to leverage for specific use-cases, such as deep analytics, HPC and cloud.

 

Gaining visibility: Companies plan to leverage OpenPOWER technology to gain visibility in the worldwide IT infrastructure markets. Many are based in China, and plan to expand their portfolios with POWER-based systems, most running Linux and OpenStack software, which are widely available for customization.

 

Challenges in the Industry

OpenPOWER is facing the same kind of questions as previous industry consortia. Some, such as OpenStack and the Linux open-source community, have formed strong communities. Others, based on specific processors (e.g. Alpha, Intel Itanium), have not built widely adopted ecosystems. Given this history, the list of challenges includes the following:

 

Accelerating momentum: Building and maintaining interest in OpenPOWER Foundation activities is critical to OpenPOWER’s future success. We expect to see more emphasis on prominent customers and hyperscale datacenters providing cloud services. Why? The datacenter itself is changing – as more workloads move from scale-up, siloed infrastructure to scale-out grids of racked servers to support variable workloads with flexible IT.

Growing the ecosystem: OpenPOWER must build out its ecosystem to sufficient size to make it a major player in the datacenter, competing with the large x86 ecosystem and with emerging ARM-based entries for infrastructure adoption. An earlier organization, POWER.org, centered on POWER-compatible systems, was smaller in scope, and did not gain the momentum that IBM had originally planned for it. OpenPOWER Foundation is aware of the need to rapidly expand the ecosystem – and is actively working on it. The support of Google and RackSpace, as two large cloud-services providers, will help.

Widespread software support. This has been an issue with earlier industry consortiums. Support for little-endian byte ordering – already in place –  is key to maintaining compatibility with Linux programs written to run on x86 platforms (NOTE: Most RISC platforms were big-endian) IBM has already ported thousands of programs to run on OpenPOWER. Importantly, IBM is providing resources to software vendors (ISVs) support application development, tuning and optimization.

How Will It Succeed?

In a world of datacenters focused on x86 architecture, competition for IT buy-in will be key to the success of the OpenPOWER Foundation, and its ecosystem. Today, x86 platforms account for more than 95% of all data-center platform installations, so competition, and gaining mind-share, will be critical to OpenPOWER’s future success. We believe that IBM and OpenPOWER will take a beach-head approach to winning market share, to broaden adoption of the technology. Market spaces showing interest in adding POWER-based systems to datacenters include:

 

  • China. The China PowerCore group plans to build out a portfolio of products based on OpenPOWER technologies. It plans to build a highly secure set of systems on POWER8, for government and Chinese financial institutions.

 

  • Big Science/High Performance Computing (HPC). Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, TN, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, CA, have contracted with IBM and NVIDIA to build two supercomputers, code-named Summit and Sierra, to be based on the POWER9 processors and NVIDIA’s Volta GPUs by 2017.

 

  • Big Data/Analytics and Cloud. POWER8’s 12-core multithreaded (8-way multi-threading on each core) design provides strong support for in-memory computing, large databases, and high-speed analytics for web-based ecommerce, credit-card fraud detection, and high-speed equities trading. We believe this appeals to Google, with its web-analytics for search engines, and financial institutions. Google has built a motherboard with POWER8, which it showed in April, 2014; the OpenPOWER Foundation chair is Gordon McKean of Google; and Google has a programming language, Google Go, for app dev.

 

  • Customized Infrastructure. OpenPOWER technology can be used as a building-block for a host of appliances, including purpose-built medical equipment and secure systems in multiple countries that meet with local government requirements. Having access to both the firmware and software toolsets provides an opportunity to optimize and customize.

Looking Ahead

Where is the POWER processor line heading? IBM speakers mentioned POWER9 as part of the POWER roadmap – which confirms that IBM is continuing to invest in POWER designs, even though its internal chip-fabrication facilities in East Fishkill, N.Y. and Burlington, VT, are being sold to GlobalFoundries later this year.

The next generation of POWER processors could be manufactured elsewhere, given the availability of the specifications, by an outside firm, such as TSMC, which has manufactured other types of RISC processors designed by other companies. It’s simply too early to know all of the details on the OpenPOWER Foundation roadmap.

The OpenPOWER Summit gave a strong start to the OpenPOWER Foundation’s worldwide efforts to gain wider OpenPOWER deployments. With solid backing from IBM, Google and many others, the ecosystem is officially launched. We’ll be watching, with great interest, to see how it develops – and how customers deploy OpenPOWER in their datacenter infrastructure – in 2015.