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IBM opens up its Power line

Big Blue proposes a new collaboration system for its Power processor, hoping to promote both chip design and the performance of future devices that use the chips.

John G. Spooner Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Spooner
covers the PC market, chips and automotive technology.
John G. Spooner
4 min read
NEW YORK--IBM is proposing to take a leaf out of Linux's book and open up the design process for its Power processor.

At a Big Blue event in Manhattan on Wednesday, executives said the company plans to offer more information on the architecture of its PowerPC and Power server chips to device makers and software developers. It will also distribute new software design tools, which should help manufacturers add the chips to their machines and encourage partners to custom Power processor-based chips for their devices.

"Now, the stage is set for innovation fueled by collaboration and a whole new era of Power," said Nick Donofrio, a senior vice president of technology and manufacturing at IBM. "We will free electronics manufacturers from the limitations of proprietary microprocessor architectures."

IBM's future development effort takes cues from that used in the Linux operating system, which is administered by a large community of developers, Donofrio said. However, IBM will still continue to control many of the most important elements of the Power architecture, such as its instruction set, he said.

Processor design is typically a solo effort, with a company such as IBM designing and manufacturing its chips and then supplying them to device manufacturers, which work them into their products. Software developers and customers are typically kept on the outside, with little input into the design of the chips.

Collaboration, though, has been used to great effect by companies such as ARM, the Cambridge, England-based chip designer, which develops software tools for its chips and helps cell phone manufacturers and others work out how to incorporate the company's designs into their products.

IBM believes that taking a more collaborative approach for its Power processor will strengthen its development, as chip technology progresses, and will improve IBM's position in the market, executives said. The effort will involve work on software, on processor design and on design of hardware that uses the chips, ranging from future consumer devices to existing supercomputers.

The plans extend recent IBM moves to bolster its Power line-up in the market. For example, it established a foundry program to manufacture chips for its customers and has licensed its PowerPC processor core, a version of the Power architecture, more widely.

IBM's Power chips--whose initials stand for "Performance Optimization with Enhanced RISC"--are best known for their roles in servers, in Apple Computer products and even in game consoles such as Nintendo's GameCube. However, they are used in a broad range of devices, which includes Cisco Systems' networking gear.

Big Blue said it plans to tap a number of partners in its collaborative development effort. Present at the New York event were chip manufacturer Chartered Semiconductor Manufacturing--a longtime IBM chip and technology partner--as well as operating system software companies Wind River and Red Hat.

Also on Wednesday, Sony announced that it has licensed the Power architecture for use in system-on-chip processors, which are all-in-one chips that include many of the features needed to run an electronic device. The Japanese company has also been working with IBM on Cell, an upcoming processor for consumer electronics devices that some expect to drive the next PlayStation game console.

For its part, Big Blue announced agreements with L-3 Communications, a defense and aerospace electronics maker, and with Global Brands Manufacture, a Chinese electronics maker. The two companies will use IBM Power chips and other technology services.

IBM has been working with a broad range of chipmakers, including Chartered, Infineon and Samsung, along with companies such as Apple and Sony. It's likely that those companies will also contribute to the new IBM design effort, IBM executives said.

The company's effort to promote Power through more collaboration and to focus on overall system development and performance instead of on clock speed are likely to be seen as positive by the industry, according to Peter Glaskowsky, a technology analyst and the former editor-in-chief of the Microprocessor Report, who attended the event.

"This is the first step. We'll have to see where (IBM) goes with it. Many of the details will have to come out over the next several years," Glaskowsky said. However, he added that it was wise of IBM to make the move, because the systems architecture is one reason why chips like Power4 exceed Intel's Itanium.

If it chooses, the systems architecture approach could allow IBM to get a bigger foothold in the markets for consumer electronics, for embedded processors and even for PCs, Glaskowsky said. The company faces a number of rival products, such as Intel and ARM processors and the MIPS processor, in those markets.

At the Power event, IBM took the opportunity to show off its several more imminent processor designs. It displayed its forthcoming Power5 processor, the successor to its top-of-the-line server processor, the Power4. It also offered a peek at a forthcoming supercomputer.

"Power5 will be far more than a speed bump," Donofrio said. "It will have lasting impact. Looking further out, there is Blue Gene, a system that will far and away become the most radical supercomputer in the world."

The Blue Gene/L supercomputer, due next year from IBM, will incorporate very large numbers of relatively low-speed, but less power-hungry, processors. A Blue Gene/L concept system with 32 nodes was shown at the New York event. With processors running at only 500MHz, it registered a performance of 128 gigaflops, according to IBM.