IBM: Leveraging the Power of Open Communities

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  April 23, 2104

Like other engineering-centric industries, IT tends to focus on development efficiency and manufacturing objectives. That’s hardly a surprise since those issues tangibly impact the creation, saleability and profitability of computing products. But a range of other issues also influences these same points, particularly those related to the communities of vendor and channel partners, third party service professional, customers and other groups and individuals with significant stakes in any technology’s long term health and viability.

Not too surprisingly, community issues tend to bore or even discomfit many engineers and rote technologists whose main concern is keeping their 0s and 1s in proper order. But over the past two decades, innovative technology communities, particularly those supporting collaborative open source and open standards efforts, have been responsible for as much or more fundamental, positive change than any single vendor. In fact, it can be argued that vendors who fail to adequately understand and capture the value of open source and open standards eventually doom themselves.

Open Opportunities

One company unlikely to ever suffer that fate is IBM, a point made clear in the new announcements and efforts around the OpenPOWER Foundation. IBM was an early proponent of open source—in fact, in 1998 it was the first major vendor to provide commercial, financial and logistical support for Linux. Since then, open standards and open source have maintained a core position for IBM, from the company’s creation and eventual open sourcing of its Eclipse integrated development environment (IDE) in 2001 to more recent focus on Pivotal Labs’ Cloud Foundry platform and open source project.

These efforts are all interesting from a philosophical perspective but they have also had profound effects on IBM’s success. For example, the company’s initial Linux implementations were designed for its signature System z mainframe solutions, and became a key factor in the ongoing vitality and success of the platform. In fact, in 2013 over half of the System z solutions sold by IBM were configured with Linux. In addition, Linux has contributed to the growth of IBM’s homegrown Power Systems and System x (Intel-based) servers and its PureFlex, FlexSystems and PureApplication converged solutions.

The Value of Open Collaboration

The OpenPOWER Foundation (announced in August 2013) aims to take IBM open source efforts in an analogous yet also significantly new direction. What IBM did, in essence, was to make POWER hardware and software available to open development for the first time as well as making POWER IP licensable to OpenPOWER members. As a result, third parties can develop unique hardware solutions based on IBM’s POWER CPUs and software, and can also license the company’s POWER IP to develop their own unique silicon.

What does this mean practically? There are obviously other commercially licensable CPU platforms available in the marketplace. In fact, ARM Holdings’ primary business focuses on licensing their microprocessor architectures to companies, including Apple, Broadcom, Qualcomm, Samsung and many others to create a wide range of unique consumer devices and industrial equipment. But while a number of start-ups and larger vendors are developing ARM-based silicon for servers, no established server processor architecture besides IBM’s POWER is available for license and product development.

That offers IBM a unique market opportunity for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the POWER architecture is an established commodity in enterprise data centers—in fact, it is the market leading Unix/Linux platform worldwide. Second, that POWER is well-understood by computing customers, ISVs and service professionals of every stripe differentiates it notably from ARM for which server-based systems and best practices are still under development. Finally, IBM POWER supports thousands of applications and the work of tens of thousands of developers, making it far more mature and ready for business primetime than any competing licensable microprocessor architecture.

Opening the Future

Does this week’s Open Innovation event bring anything new to the POWER table? Absolutely:

  • IBM launched its own next generation POWER8 chips and solutions, including three new systems created specifically for Big Data analytics applications (such as the company’s own Blu Acceleration and Hadoop distributions) and five new Linux-based, S-class, scale-out servers designed for data center consolidation. The company also committed $1 billion to Linux and other open source development on Power, including five new Power Systems Linux Centers and a no-charge cloud service for testing and porting x86-based Linux applications to Power. Finally, IBM unveiled the availability of Canonical’s Ubuntu Server for Power8 and introduced PowerKVM, a Power Systems-compatible version of the KVM virtualization tool.
  • Initial OpenPOWER server designs, including a white box reference and development design from Tyan with firmware and OS/stack developed by IBM, Google and Canonical. IBM also announced that it will deploy OpenPOWER-based systems in its SoftLayer cloud data centers later in 2014.
  • OpenPOWER Foundation members introduced a number of new solutions for modern data centers, including Mellanox RDMA exploitation on POWER, NVIDIA GPU acceleration with POWER, Xilinx and Altera CAPI-attached FPGA accelerators, and Hynix, Micros and Samsung memory for POWER-based solutions.
  • Finally, the OpenPOWER Foundation now boasts over 25 members, including Canonical, Emulex, Fusion-IO, Hitachi, Jülich Supercomputer, Micron, Oregon State University, SK Hynix, Xilinx, and several others.

Final Analysis

Those who have studied IBM for some time will see familiar elements in the company’s open source and community-based efforts around POWER. For example, in 2005 the company announced “Chiphopper” a software platform for simplifying the porting of x86-based Linux applications to the Power platform. The following year, IBM launched, an industry group that aimed to expand the support for the POWER architecture beyond IBM’s hardware organization.

At a recent IBM analyst event, a company executive noted that the difference between then and now is that “We are hungrier today.” The reasons for that are both practical and strategic. Though IBM leads the market for scale-up Unix systems by a long shot, that sector is facing serious challenges from a wide range of competitive and market factors. IBM’s Power Systems are certainly in a healthier position than Oracle’s SPARC-based servers or HP’s Itanium-based Integrity solutions.

But in order to survive over the long term, IBM must look well-beyond the confines of the enterprise data centers that have long been POWER’s natural home, and the development and growth of the OpenPOWER Foundation suggests that the company is capable of that effort. The sheer variety of vendors participating in the Foundation is testimony to the need for such an organization, and the presence of marquee members like Google suggests OpenPOWER is likely to stay in the public light and imagination for some time to come.

That doesn’t mean that IBM can entrust its future entirely to collaborative efforts and the new POWER8-based processors and systems shows that the company’s reputation for innovation is still well-deserved. But the strategic efforts around POWER also highlights IBM’s understanding that continuing, positive evolution is the only way to survive. To ensure its own and POWER’s future IBM will certainly glean some of its past successes, including its profound understanding of how to support, nurture and inspire open communities.

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