OpenPower Foundation members showed off some potentially game-changing new hardware at their first full conference in San Jose, California, last week.
The Open Power consortium was formed by IBM in August, 2013, in an attempt to create a renewed ecosystem around its Power processor technology. From four original partners, the group has grown to 110 members in 22 countries.
The most significant announcements came from the Foundation’s Chinese and Taiwanese members. IBM’s Power Systems business took an almost fatal blow in the Chinese market after Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA snooping in 2013. Whether it had colluded with America’s spies or not, it seems that Big Blue’s response is to let manufacturers in that part of the world make their own Power-based boxes.
In October, PowerWire broke the story about the world’s first non-IBM Power server, the TYAN GN70-BP010 “reference system” (code-named Palmetto) from Taiwan’s Tyan. At this week’s conference in San Jose, Tyan announced the TYAN TN71-BP012.
The new one-socket, 2U server is codenamed Habanero (a variety of chilli pepper). Significantly, IBM announced that it would be using Tyan’s servers to act as the bare-metal Linux-on-Power systems it will rent out via its SoftLayer cloud division later this year. In effect, this makes IBM the first major customer for non-IBM Power systems.
If that’s a slightly difficult concept for the seasoned midrange watcher to get their head around, try this. IBM is licensing a custom variation of the Power8 processor, the CP1, to Chinese firm Suzhou PowerCore. Containing an added custom encryption module, the CP1 chips will be used by local firm Zoom Netcom to make a new line of line of servers called, fittingly, RedPower.
What’s more, Taiwan’s Wistron has made its own Power8 server, codenamed Firestone and including accelerators from Nvidia and Mellanox, that will actually be sold by IBM. Firestone motherboard prototypes, we were told, are due to be used in the two huge Power9-based supercomputers IBM and Nvidia are due to deliver to U.S. government’s Department of Energy in 2017.
Such moves follow what IBM itself describes as the endorsement of OpenPower last Autumn by the Chinese government via the formation of the China Power Technology Alliance (CPTA). The CPTA, like most significant entities in the country, is a public-private partnership. Both Power i and Power p once thrived in sectors like banking, telecoms and even tax collection.
Chinese giant Inspur certainly seems to have got the message and unveiled its own two-socket, 4U Power8 server. Smaller manufacturer ChuangHe also announced its own one-socket, 1U variant.
Other significant announcements included what was described as the first GPU-accelerated OpenPower platform, the Cirrascale RM4950, which was developed by U.S. firm Cirrascale and Tyan.
Last week’s get-together was co-located with Nvidia’s GPU Technology Conference and amidst the expo stands, attendees may have spotted a number of big elephants in the room.
For a start, who really benefits from all of this? Obviously, it’s not Intel. The firms involved in OpenPower are obviously keen on creating a tangible alternative to the chip giant’s global hegemony. There was even a Russian delegation that was looking into its own version of the RedPower server. But it’s not really IBM either.
OpenPower is the third major consortium to surround Power processor technology. It’s predecessors were the AIM Alliance (successful) in the 1990s and Power.org in the 2000s (less so). The big difference this time around is that IBM no longer makes Power chips. It paid $1.5 billion to the Abu Dhabi government-owned GlobalFoundries to take its processor-making business off its hands in October.
Next up, what about AIX and IBM i? Here at PowerWire (and its predecessors), we’ve been flying the flag for Linux-on-Power since the turn of the century. As such, it’s pleasing to see it bearing so much fruit. But as soon as third-party manufacturers start making their own Power systems, customers will no doubt demand that these servers run AIX and IBM i.
If you are a Chinese bank, say, that is using Power i or Power p right now, presumably you are going to be happier if your next box is of the state-sanctioned RedPower variety. While Big Blue may resist such demands initially, my guess is that eventually it will have to cede even IBM i to such customers.
There’s a third question, especially if the latter point holds true. If IBM no longer owns or makes Power processors and everybody and their aunt gets busy churning out their own machines, how much longer will it bother to manufacture its own?