OpenPOWER: Solid Progress as the Ecosystem Expands

In August, 2013, Tom Rosamilia, SVP of IBM’s Systems and Technology Group announced the formation of the OpenPOWER Foundation – an organization dedicated to fostering innovation in systems designs based on POWER microprocessor technology.  What IBM did was to state that it would license the core intellectual property for POWER technologies to other companies so they could build new servers and appliances for use in the cloud data centers of the future.  My reaction to this announcement at that time was, “This is excellent – it is exactly what IBM needs to do to broaden the POWER ecosystem and to propel POWER architecture into new markets”.

Since that announcement, little has been heard about the OpenPOWER Foundation – so, with a little digging, I was able to track OpenPOWER progress to date.  Here’s what I’ve found:

  1. Much work goes into building a Foundation.  To date the OpenPOWER Foundation has  established its leadership structure (with a Google representative as Chairman;  with an IBM representative as Vice Chariman;  and with a NVIDEA representative in the treasurer position).  Further, the organization has set forth the rules under which the Foundation will operate (IT Rights Policy, governance); has structured a tiered membership approach to accommodate vendors of various sizes (and budgets).  (Note: almost seventy companies have expressed interest in the OpenPOWER movement).  Further, technical steering committees have been formed; officers have been elected – and, from a legal perspective, OpenPOWER was officially formed on December 16, 2013.
  2. Project and programs are underway.  Currently, the OpenPOWER Foundation is largely focused on systems software development, application software solutions, open server development and hardware architecture.  As new members come on board, I expect this list of projects to expand significantly.
  3. Remember, the OpenPOWER Foundation is focused on building solutions for IBM’s next generation POWER8 architecture – which has yet to be released (I expect POWER8 to arrive in mid-2014).  In the meantime, the Foundation has identified the intellectual property that will be made available; a reference design has been articulated; documentation is in the works; and a new bus interface (CAPI) has been articulated.  So, even though the POWER8 microprocessor is not yet shipping, a lot of design work can take place now.

Extrapolation: What I Think May Be “in the Works”

At the time of announcement, four major partners stepped forward to announce their commitment to the OpenPOWER Foundation: Google, Mellanox, NVIDIA and Tyan.  And recently, Suzhou PowerCore Technology Company and the Research Institute of Jiangsu Industrial Technology announced that they plan to join the foundation.  Considering what each of these organizations does, this is a rundown of what I’m expecting when POWER8 processors become available:

  • Mellanox – Mellanox make switches and other Mellanox high speed communications equipment – so, from my perspective, I expect Mellanox to work on next generation hyperscale systems designs.
  • As for NVIDIA, this company is known for its graphical processor units (GPUs) – so I can easily see new appliances coming to market based on hybrid POWER/GPU combinations that could process analytics faster by assigning the right computing workloads to the processors best suited to execute that workload.   Also, NVIDIA’s Grid systems (basically GPU-based rack servers) are being used for parallel processing-intensive high performance computing/supercomputing environments, with listing in 10+ of the top 100 systems in the Top500 list found at  Licensing Power should give NVIDIA a potentially remarkable CPU/GPU combo.
  • As for the big search company (Google), I can envision new services being developed that would require more muscular processors than x86 Xeon.  Remember, the company builds a lot of its own server environments which are based on x86 servers today.  If Google finds a new niche that requires more powerful processors and higher RAS/QoS (reliability, availability, serviceability and Quality-of-Service), then it could design systems based on POWER would be a natural for these kinds of environments.  Also, don’t forget that only a dozen or so vulnerabilities are reported on Power Systems each year (and none are reported on Power VM) – as compared with hundreds of vulnerabilities on x86-based systems – so I wouldn’t be surprised if Google developed some sort of security appliance based on Power.
  • As for Tyan, the company’s participation in OpenPOWER interested me because Tyan designs boards – so I could see new circuit board designs where microprocessors, memory, storage, crypto and other functions could be tightly coupled together and packaged as new appliance solutions.
  • And finally, as for Suzhou PowerCore Technology Company and the Research Institute of Jiangsu Industrial Technology, these two entities will join forces to license IBM’s POWER architecture, intellectual property related to POWER8 as well as related chip design tools in order to provide customized chip design solutions and server technologies that will help foster innovation in the areas of Big Data, cloud computing and next-generation data centers in China.

Summary Observations

What I liked best about the formation of the OpenPOWER Foundation is that IBM and the founding members have structured the organization around inter-vendor collaboration.  Along with sharing the processor blueprints and licensing the use of POWER technology, IBM announced that the Foundation would be based on the open-collaboration business model.  Companies that joined the OpenPOWER Foundation would need to share innovations and collaborate with one another.  As Rosamilia put it: “The goal is to create an ecosystem of hardware and software developers to drive innovation in cloud computing.”

So, what has happened since the formal announcement in August? The OpenPOWER Foundation has articulated how it will operate; it has determined where it will focus its initial research and development efforts; and members have obtained the information they need to start to articulate their new POWER-based systems designs.

As I look back over the past five months since OpenPOWER was announced, I see a lot of progress has been made in governance and in initial R&D.  When POWER8 arrives (with more powerful processors, faster threading, access to vast amounts of main memory – and more), I expect the buyer community to strongly embrace POWER8-based solutions – particularly for compute-intensive and analytics workloads.  Further, I expect that dozens of new vendors will join the OpenPOWER foundation in order to build systems designs that will take advantage of one of the most powerful microprocessor designs in the industry.