The OpenPOWER Initiative May Actually Chart a Smarter Path for 64-Bit Computing

Steven Hill
Steven Hill

Summary Bullets:

  • The truly open development environment offered by the OpenPOWER Foundation makes the high-performance POWER platform much more accessible and will benefit from the input of participants from all facets of the system design community.
  • The high cost of midrange systems have always restricted them to high-performance, high availability tasks; but IBM’s program opening up the POWER processor platform to the world could usher in the next generation of affordable 64-bit computing options.

Open is an extremely overused word these days. In the world of cloud in which we live, the primary buzzword is always “open” with everyone falling over one and another to prove just how open they are. But there’s open and then there’s OPEN, as evidenced by IBM’s creation and ongoing support of the OpenPOWER Foundation. Now I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve become wary of vendor claims to “openness”, it usually means “we’ll expose our API’s so YOU can work with US”, but in the case of the POWER processor platform IBM has pulled out all the stops. As a member of OpenPOWER, you can get access to everything—blueprints, code—anything you want going back as far as you want, plus participation in a completely collaborative environment designed to inspire and embrace outside participation. Too good to be true? Not at all, and over 60 companies have signed on as partners so far, with hopefully more to follow.

When I first heard of the OpenPOWER Foundation over a year ago I have to admit that I didn’t pay much attention. Like many, I had begun to overlook the future relevance of midrange systems because of the amazing and continued success of the x86 platform (Intel can thank AMD for allowing them extend that architecture way beyond anyone’s expectations by providing the first x64 memory addressing and efficient multi-core designs). And with the overwhelming industry rejection of the Intel/HP Itanium, the absorption of the SUN SPARC into the world of Oracle and the niche market for IBM POWER-based systems it really seemed like the dream of truly high-performance processors would only be accessible to those with the deepest pockets. But now I’m starting to get second thoughts.

You have to admit, it was a bold move for IBM to open the POWER architecture to the world. It means that they will actually have to compete with companies who choose to build POWER systems of their own. But on the other hand the OpenPOWER platform can only benefit from having even more extremely intelligent engineers from many other sources contributing to the design. It’s always beneficial to have fresh input, and as always, competition always adds to innovation while at the same time lowering costs to the end user. And aside from offering 8-threads of processing power per core (as opposed to the Xeon’s 2), the latest POWER8 architecture adds some pretty amazing features like the new Coherent Accelerator Processor Interface (CAPI) which is an architecture that provides extremely efficient, low-latency, high bandwidth, direct I/O to other processing components like GPUs, ASICs and FPGAs. Even more interesting is the POWER8’s ability to seamlessly run conventional, little-endian Linux workloads from all your favorite players, such as SUSE, RedHat, and Citrix; and showing some pretty amazing price/performance numbers at cloud-scale.

One could argue that IBM’s motives aren’t totally pure; after all, they’ve already announced a number of their own POWER8 systems targeted at both legacy, big-endian AIX workloads as well as the previously mentioned Linux. But on the other hand, they seem to be taking the highest road imaginable when it comes to freely sharing what amounts to decades, and perhaps billions of dollars’ worth of technology research. As for me, I prefer to think of this as an altruistic gesture, and one that I can only hope will benefit the computing community in the long run. There will be a time when the good old x86 can go no further, and it would be nice to know that we have a successor in the wings. Perhaps, one based on the contributions and best intentions of more than a single company.


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