OpenPOWER Foundation Announces New Server Alternatives

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  March 18, 2015

The OpenPOWER Foundation announced over ten new hardware solutions, including systems, boards, and cards, and a microprocessor customized for the Chinese market built by Foundation members. According to the organization, the new solutions exploit IBM’s open source POWER architecture to provide greater choice, customization and performance to customers purchasing systems for use in IT infrastructures, including hyperscale data centers. Among the products and prototypes OpenPOWER members revealed were:

1. A prototype of a new high-performance server jointly developed by Wistron and IBM using technology from NVIDIA and Mellanox. This is the first in a series of solutions planned as part of IBM’s technical computing roadmap which are predicted to be five to 10 times faster than today’s leading supercomputers.

2. TYAN TN71-BP012, the first commercially available OpenPOWER server with planned availability in the second quarter of 2015. These servers are designed for large-scale cloud environments. IBM will be among the first to deploy the new servers as part of its SoftLayer infrastructure, utilizing them for a new bare metal service offering.

3. Cirrascale RM4950, the First GPU-accelerated OpenPOWER developer platform and the result of collaboration between NVIDIA, Tyan and one of the OpenPOWER Foundation’s newest members, Cirrascale. Immediately available for order and shipping in volume in the second quarter of 2015, the platform is designed to support the development of GPU-accelerated big data analytics, deep learning and scientific computing applications.

4. An open server specification and motherboard mock-up combining OpenPOWER, Open Compute and OpenStack revealed by Rackspace that is targeted to run OpenStack services and be deployed in Rackspace data centers.

OpenPOWER Foundation members also revealed products under development in China to develop custom solutions and accelerate local innovation. At the center of this ecosystem is CP1, the first POWER chip for the China market, from PowerCore, a Chinese chip design company. The first systems with CP1 will come to market this year by vendors including Zoom Netcom and ChuangHe.

OpenPOWER also noted that since its founding in August 2013, the Foundation has grown to include more than 110 businesses, organizations and individual members in 22 countries. Members and their customers recognize the technical benefits of IBM’s POWER architecture, the first microprocessor designed from the ground up for big data and analytics workloads. According to the Foundation, the POWER8 processors utilized by members are priced significantly lower, deliver better overall performance and offer more than 60% better performance per dollar than alternative server microprocessors

The pitch

OpenPOWER announces a strong slate of members’ first commercial solutions based on IBM’s POWER8 architecture.

 Final analysis

Collaborative tech industry consortiums are as unique as fleas on a dog but consortiums that actually succeed are far less common. Why is that the case? For a number of reasons worth considering.

First, consortiums tend to be more reactive than proactive – never a good thing in dynamic markets like IT. In addition, vendors are often more inclined to band together when they feel endangered than they are when things are going well. That doesn’t necessarily doom common efforts but it can signal significant disparities in strength and ability between member companies.

Finally and most importantly, though “collaboration” has long been an IT industry buzzword truly effective collaborations tend to be the exception, not the rule. That’s because they require participants to recognize and respect one another’s strengths while also being honest about their own shortcomings. The process is never easy but when successful it can deliver results that are far greater than the sum of their parts.

At this juncture, the OpenPOWER Foundation appears to fully qualify as one of those uncommonly successful consortiums. Founded less than eighteen months ago, the group has burgeoned from five to 110+ participating firms and individuals. Moreover, members are not letting the grass grow beneath them since the first POWER8-based commercial solutions are set to become available in the coming quarter.

Those solutions and their target markets are worth a closer look. In some ways, they’re entirely predictable. After all, robust thread count, memory and throughput features have already made POWER8 a force in high performance database, business intelligence and analytics applications. So leveraging the platform for those areas along with traditional and emerging enterprise applications and cloud environments (as IBM plans to do in its SoftLayer facilities with TYAN’s TN71-BP012) makes great sense.

Plus, while POWER8 has a strong position in high performance and technical computing, adding NVIDIA’s GPU technologies to both the Wistron/IBM supercomputing efforts (which the partners believe will push those installations far beyond the performance of current top performing supercomputers) and the new Cirrascale RM4950 solutions for scientific, big data and deep learning should result in some remarkable performance boosts.

Finally, the activities of OpenPOWER players in China are intriguing, especially in light of the dynamism of that market. To date, China-based companies and the Chinese government have shown little desire to be locked into what they consider rigidly controlled technologies or unyielding business relationships. So it’s no surprise that many successful western vendors have only partly cracked the code there. OpenPOWER’s inherent flexibility should help address those concerns and if CP1 succeeds, OpenPOWER could be a force at the epicenter of what many believe is the next big IT market opportunity.

Competitively speaking, the obvious target for many or most OpenPOWER efforts is Intel. Not only is the company the leader (usually by a long shot) in most business computing target markets but OpenPOWER’s development model (which allows Foundation members freedom to leverage the Power architecture as they wish and to engage chip fabs of their choosing) is markedly different than Intel’s tight control of its intellectual property and manufacturing processes.

But OpenPOWER may be an even greater danger to those hoping to leverage the ARM chip architecture in server and data center solutions. After all, OpenPOWER offers many of the same flexible benefits that ARM proponents claim for themselves but the Power architecture has well-established RAS (reliability, availability and serviceability) features and a leadership position in business data centers that ARM can only dream of.

Plus, let’s not forget the continuing support of thousands of business software developers and ISVs and their private and public sector customers. This is not to say that OpenPOWER has punctured prospects for ARM servers or deflated them entirely but we expect that keeping ARM’s prospects aloft will become that much harder.

Overall, these new announcements from the OpenPOWER Foundation and its members look like good news all around. The organization’s continued growth and progress along with these first commercial solutions underscore IBM’s original decision to open its Power architecture.

By doing so, the company and the members of OpenPOWER appear well on the way to injecting additional new choices and innovations for a range of computing needs and processes. While that may discommode market leaders or proponents of other platforms, business IT customers and data center owners should be glad of the OpenPOWER Foundation’s well-deserved success.

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