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IBM Power chip instruction set now open source

IBM opened up its Power server Instruction Set Architecture allowing the open source community to develop more innovative hardware components for IBM's Power servers.

One month after closing the $34 billion deal to buy Red Hat, IBM took another aggressive step in committing to open source by making the Power Instruction Set Architecture available to the open source community.

The move is expected to boost IBM Power processor's value by allowing open source developers to create more innovative hardware components, which could ultimately allow Big Blue to better compete against Intel.

In addition to contributing the ISA, IBM plans to contribute a handful of other technologies to the open source community, including a soft core implementation of the IBM Power Instruction Set Architecture (ISA), reference designs for the Open Coherent Accelerator Processor Interface (OpenCAPI) and the Open Memory Interface (OMI). The latter two interface standards increase memory bandwidth among processors and attached devices, which allows developers to sidestep the performance bottlenecks such as those caused by AI- and cloud-based workloads.

"Five years ago, we saw Moore's Law dying along with this explosion of AI algorithms and realized we needed an open, more innovative model to drive better performance across the stack for things like accelerators, storage and networking devices," said Ken King, general manager of IBM's OpenPower group. "The idea is to complement the processor to meet the requirement of modern workloads."

IBM's open source strategy extends to hardware

There are three separate pieces to IBM's strategy here, King said. First, the licensing of ISA to the OpenPower Foundation allows developers to implement their technologies on top of the ISA royalty-free. Developers can gain patent rights to that implementation if it becomes incorporated into the ISA. To become a standard piece of the ISA however, developers' implementations must be approved by a majority vote among members of a newly formed governance group operating within the Linux Foundation. IBM will have a representative on the governance board and will get one vote.

Open sourcing ISA is part of the broader movement within IBM to become more open in terms of both hardware and software. [It] is the hardware equivalent of the Red Hat deal.
Peter RuttenResearch director, IDC

The second step makes the OpenCAPI and OMI interfaces freely available to all developers who now can more easily collaborate on a range of different Power-compatible technologies and creates a more level playing field among competitors.

The third step brings the OpenPower Foundation under the aegis of the Linux Foundation, although the foundation will retain its own board of directors.

"The objective of putting the OpenPower Foundation under the Linux Foundation is to demonstrate to the community how serious we are about this," King said.

Even with this revitalized open approach, IBM's Power series has a formidable task in trying to chip away at the overwhelming market share held by Intel-based servers. While IBM has stabilized Power server sales over the past couple of quarters, the Power series is down in the single digits in the overall server market.

"Power has been a solid system with good capabilities for a while," said Judith Hurwitz, president of Hurwitz & Associates in Needham, Mass. "But ... [IBM hasn't] been able to cement it in place as a foundational technology that sits next to Intel. This is part of the plan to get more companies thinking about the Power architecture as a foundational piece of their data centers."

Open sourcing the chip instruction set is a natural evolution of the IBM Power series that began several years ago when the company first offered reference designs of the Power system to a dozen or so OEMs. Those companies used the reference designed in tandem with an open software stack to essentially create their own versions of the Power server.

"The reference design made it easier for third parties to do their own version of the [Power] server," IBM's King said. "But now we are taking it down to the ISA level itself that can be leveraged by third parties to build other types of open chips."

Other analysts agreed the move represents a natural, and necessary, progression in IBM's overall open source strategy.

"Open sourcing ISA is part of the broader movement within IBM to become more open in terms of both hardware and software," said Peter Rutten, research director at IDC's enterprise infrastructure practice. "Opening up ISA is the hardware equivalent of the Red Hat deal," he said.

Rutten added that opening up the Power ISA is something developers and systems integrators with high-performance requirements have needed for a while now and will be receptive to.

"Now that [ISA] is opened up, people like the hyperscalers will see this as an interesting opportunity," Rutten said.

IBM shared the news during The Linux Foundation's Open Source Summit this week, where Microchip Technology Inc. debuted what it claims is the first commercially available serial memory controller. Pete Hazen, vice president of Microchip's data center solutions business unit, said the product, thanks to OMI, enables the device to work with "a broad range of applications" to support the memory requirements of higher-performance data center applications.

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