IBM’s cloudy future lies with OpenPOWER Foundation

Kurt Marko Profile picture for user kmarko April 18, 2016
IBM's POWER holds promise for specific workloads - here's why.

Server room interior © Oleksiy Mark -
The heart of IBM has long been in software and services, not the iconic hardware which made the company synonymous with enterprise IT. Assuming the company has much of a future, that won’t be changing, only the delivery vehicle will be shared and managed cloud services along with what it calls cognitive computing (Watson-inspired machine learning software) not on-premise software and consulting engagements.

Even accounting for major spinoffs of PCs and low-end servers to Lenovo, IBM’s hardware revenues have been in secular decline for at least a decade, with revenues down over 20% in the past year.

In its recent Q1 2016 earnings statement, IBM reported hardware accounts for a mere 9% of total revenues, with sales down almost 22% from last year. Yet Not So Big Blue hasn’t given up on hardware by ceding core technology development to others and is in the midst of revitalizing its POWER CPU platform into a serious Intel competitor for certain workloads.

The vehicle for IBM’s hoped-for POWER renaissance is the OpenPOWER Foundation and a growing constellation of hardware and software partners building POWER-optimized products. The Foundation hosted its second annual summit in conjunction with NVIDIA GTC earlier this month, which served as a report card on its progress.

OpenPOWER was founded in 2013 and as I noted after last year’s inaugural summit,

IBM’s motives and goals in establishing OpenPOWER are clear: sustain the platform. … Fundamentally, OpenPOWER is the last, best hope for maintaining POWER processor viability and growing it into a realistic Intel alternative for cloud servers. On that metric it’s impossible to judge success or failure at this point.

Fast forward a year and OpenPOWER’s momentum is both tangible and significant.

Not only is the organization breaking out from IBM’s cocoon, with a new Chair from Canonical and technical leadership from important cloud software and services companies like Google, Mellanox, NVIDIA and Rackspace, but it now boasts over 200a members.

From a handful of OpenPOWER products on display in 2015, the organization revealed over 50 new hardware devices, primarily system boards, servers and accelerators, this year. Indeed, the organization’s focus has shifted from developing mindshare, standards and processes to membership, blueprints and products.

Replacing Moore’s Law with the Wisdom of Crowds

There’s an axiom in the open source world that “with enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”. OpenPOWER seeks to exploit the same ethos of open collaboration to address the waning influence of Moore’s Law (now, more like Moore’s Hope) on system performance.

Indeed, the undeniable slowdown in semiconductor process improvements, with Intel itself formally (page 14 of its recent 10-K) acknowledging that it can no longer sustain the Tick-Tock cadence of process node improvements for every other CPU generation, was a recurrent theme at the OpenPOWER Summit.

OpenPOWER’s solution is a platform that can be enhanced with workload-specific and I/O hardware accelerators, better system software and customized application code by a growing ecosystem of members.

Its hope is that the combination of collaborative innovation, open, composable (customizable) systems and fully integrated hardware-software stacks tailored for specific workloads like deep learning, large dataset business analytics, various cloud services and HPC modeling and simulation can break Intel’s hegemony in the data center.

One market segment has already embraced the message of platform heterogeneity as survey data cited at the show claims that 88% of HPC users expect to use multiple processing architectures in the future.

A strong OpenPOWER roadmap

For the first time, IBM released a detailed POWER CPU roadmap that includes future products designed by OpenPOWER partners, not IBM. As expected, the plans feature both a new microarchitecture and process node for the POWER9 generation expected next year, but also revealed future versions designed by OpenPOWER partners in 2018 and beyond.

Although no one was sharing specifics, the presentation by IBM Fellow Brad McCredie suggests these will be based on the core POWER8 or 9 microarchitecture, but designed for specific workloads or deployment scenarios.

One could see POWER evolving into a family of products with various core counts and power envelopes similar to the Xeon family where Intel is already tweaking base product SKUs for big customers like Facebook, eBay and Microsoft.

In the near term, the bigger news is that IBM has worked with NVIDIA to integrate its NVLink GPU interconnect directly on chip to greatly accelerate data transfer between GPU and system memory. This will directly benefit many GPU-accelerated applications such as those I discussed in this column.

At GTC, representatives from Blazegraph, GPUdb and MapD all expressed keen interest in porting their x86-based software to POWER for the express purpose of exploiting this feature for improved data throughput.

OpenPOWER's credibility received another boost when Google and Rackspace announced the joint development of a POWER9-based system board and server tailored to hyperscale cloud workloads.

The result will be a 48-core system with up to 2TB of RAM and a variety of fast I/O interfaces to include CAPI (IBM's existing standard for linking external hardware directly to CPU memory), NVLink and PCI-Express 4.0.

Google is inherently secretive about its hardware plans, but has opened up recently as it seeks to influence the supply chain and lead the industry in directions it sees as best, so the fact that it is sponsoring this OpenPOWER project is significant.

Although the company was mum on the types of workloads it runs on POWER CPUs, Google Engineering Manager and OpenPOWER Foundation Director Maire Mahoney did reveal that almost its entire software tool chain is POWER-aware and that developers can port code to the platform with some simple configuration changes.

My take

Hardware is not strategic to IBM, however core processor, I/O and system technology are still important components in differentiating its enterprise software and cloud services.

IBM clearly couldn't continue pumping money to sustain a unique CPU architecture so opening up the POWER platform via OpenPOWER was the only viable option. Now that OpenPOWER has created a growing developer and OEM ecosystem and revealed a multi-generation product roadmap, I could see IBM spinning the chip business off to a new, independent company or one of the semiconductor foundries. The Foundation assures IBM of a steady supply of product innovation and supply.

The OpenPOWER gamble is working and it appears POWER could emerge as a realistic x86 alternative for specific workloads.

The fact that cloud builders like Google and Rackspace are part of the Foundation and in various stages of moving workloads to POWER systems is an important indicator that processor has a future. Given strong participation by a variety of Chinese ODM and component manufacturers in the OpenPOWER project, we strongly suspect that many of the Chinese hyperscale cloud operators like Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent are evaluating the platform.

OpenPOWER doesn't present an imminent threat to Intel's data center dominance, however as I previously discussed, it's indicative of a larger trend of software developers and cloud builders looking for creative ways to bend the price-performance curve more steeply than Intel's current technology roadmap is capable of.

Large enterprises should take note since the result will mean faster applications, cheaper cloud services and heightened competition for their hardware dollars.

[An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Alibaba and Baidu are members of the OpenPower foundation.]

Image credit - Modern interior of server room in datacenter © Oleksiy Mark -

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