IBM Power Systems GM: Big scale and big data demand OpenPower

According to the conventional wisdom, Power was another victim – along with SPARC and, to a lesser extent, ARM – of the inexorable march of the commodity x86 server. But IBM seems to have halted the Power architecture's slide.

IBM's Power Systems division which sells servers and systems based on the Power system architecture, as opposed to the Intel-based x86 architecture used in most personal computers had been in free-fall for some time, posting year-on-year revenue declines of up to 37% per quarter over the past couple of years. According to the conventional wisdom, Power was another victim along with SPARC and, to a lesser extent, ARM of the inexorable march of the commodity x86 server.

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However, over the past two quarters, the division has managed to pull out of the dive posting a positive year-on-year revenue figure (when measured in constant dollars) for the first time since 2012. And it's done so while open-sourcing the architecture, starting the OpenPower Foundation in late 2013.

The move started, Power division general manager Doug Balog said during an interview with Network World Thursday at the Red Hat Summit in Boston, because of a need to "realign Power with where the market's going data, cloud and openness."

Power division general manager Doug Balog

Balog argues that there's a "desperate need" for an Intel alternative in the market.

"One company owning the innovation agenda and everyone else building the recipe is kind of like everybody having the same chocolate chip cookies," he said. "There's very little differentiation and it becomes commoditized."

Power, according to Balog, has advantages in terms of per-core performance, caching structure, and memory bandwidth, making it a strong choice for large-scale cloud deployments and databases. The first is particularly important in the age of per-core pricing for certain applications, allowing companies to spend less to get a given performance level out of their stack.

More than that, however, he said that the newly open nature of Power makes it an attractive alternative particularly to potential users that want to know every single detail about their silicon.

"Intel's not open. You can't see inside Intel," he said. "The market always wants choice."

What the market also wants, though, is performance, and Balog highlighted the prominence of Power in the HPC sector. Indeed, four of the top 10 in the most recent top500 list, which ranks the most powerful computers in the world, ran Power.

IBM is hoping to put that high-end horsepower to work commercially, and Balog argued that demand is strong.

"I haven't met an application provider yet who says it's OK if I run slower,'" he said.

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