IBM power servers seek a boost from Google, Nvidia

IBM will attempt to improve its Power-based server business through an open development consortium with Google, NVIDIA, and others.

Hoping to shore up the fortunes of its Power-based servers and compete more effectively against Intel-based servers, IBM has formed an open development consortium with Google to deliver high-end computing platforms for cloud data centers.

Breaking new ground, IBM will license essential server hardware and firmware technologies used in its Power systems to members of its OpenPOWER Consortium. This will enable them to develop server, networking, storage and GPU-acceleration technologies to make up what it hopes is the next generation cloud computing platform.

Other founding members of the OpenPower Consortium include GPU maker Nvida Corp., server manufacturer TYAN and interconnect provider Mellanox Technologies.

"We want to grow our Power base into new markets. We are not a strong player in growing Web 2.0 and cloud space and we want to participate there," said Brad McCredie, CTO of IBM's Systems Technology Group and IBM Fellow. "But to do that we have to bring our IP to market in a different way than if we were addressing the classic Unix market."

Google Inc. officials declined say what their contributions to the consortium would be, or what competitive goals they hoped to achieve by being a founding member. A Google spokesperson was characteristically vague saying in an email statement, "we believe in openness and we are looking forward to the innovation that the OpenPOWER Consortium will bring to the data center hardware and software industry."

But knowing Google's closely-held interest in creating its own hardware designs, one analyst believes the company can couple IBM's Power chip and other technical pieces from consortium members with its own server technology to create a more robust cloud computing platform.

"Google, who we know is doing a lot of their own in-house design, could license this technology and build their own computers based on Power that would give them yet another platform [in addition to Intel and ARM chips] to work with for the cloud," said Jean Bozman, research vice president with IDC Corp., a technology analysis firm based in Framingham, Mass.

One IT professional found it difficult to generate much enthusiasm for the new organization until he finds out what the raw computing advantages over x86-based servers will be and, as always, how much money it can save his shop.

"This [group] seems like they can provide all the right pieces for cloud-based projects, but I would have to know more about what I am getting and what it will cost me. IBM and Google being part of the same team here is interesting," said the IT administrator, who requested anonymity.

The new consortium could serve to not only bolster the sagging fortunes of IBM's Power line -- the company recently reported revenues had dropped 25% in this year's second quarter compared to the same quarter last year -- but also create a Power-based ecosystem in cloud data centers through a proliferation of mobile devices and appliances from Google and others. The move comes as IBM continues to shop its struggling System X and BladeCenter server business.

The consortium could also help IBM gain more market share for Linux in a number of different cloud markets ranging from typical commercial enterprise tasks to high performance computing, according to Bozman. IBM appears to have sharpened its focus of this pursuit over the past few months through a flurry of Linux-based Power server releases, as it backs away from Unix.

"Bundling Linux with a number of Power systems of late, as well as supporting OpenStack helps," McCredie said. "This announcement is one more piece of that consistent growth plan we have for both Power and Linux."

Perhaps the key technology piece IBM will license is the Power firmware, software which controls basic chip functions and makes it possible for licensees to customize or even create from scratch new types of server hardware capable of handling a range of workloads.

The OpenPOWER Consortium should be fully operational this fall, at which time many of the founding partners unveil plans for products based on the approved technologies, according to McCredie.

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