Battle Of The CPU All-Stars: IBM OpenPOWER Takes Aim At Intel For Warehouse-Scale Servers

Having completely jettisoned its entry level commodity businesses to Lenovo , first PCs, then x86 servers and edge network switches, IBM is refocused on what it knows best: big iron. But these days that doesn’t mean hulking, refrigerator-sized mainframes so much as modular, rackable units tailored for cloud server farms. The other big change: this time, IBM is no longer going it alone. Instead, Big Blue is drawing upon thousands of man-years of experience acquired by working on a myriad of open source software projects. Instead of sticks, IBM is using carrots to win supporters and create a movement behind its vision of an open technology stack, from CPUs and motherboards to APIs and applications, all tailored for warehouse scale cloud infrastructure, software and services. Its called OpenPOWER, drawing the name from IBM’s once proprietary processor architecture. I outlined the project in an earlier column, but its coming out party, complete details documented here, coincided with NVIDIA’s big GTC developer event. Given NVIDIA’s emphasis on enterprise applications like deep learning, previously discussed here, OpenPOWER’s debut was no coincidence, but more on that later.

Although IBM execs bristle at the conclusion, simple observation of the presentations and core technology shows that most of the OpenPOWER expertise and technical firepower still resides within IBM, even though the Foundation’s board and membership are quite diverse. Although the Summit did an admirable job of including many voices, simply tallying the affiliation of each presenter isn’t the right metric since, to use an analogy from the deep learning technology so prominent at GTC, it doesn’t include weighting coefficients for the depth and significance of their contributions. Despite the impressive show of hardware partners, primarily Chinese OEMs building systems based on core IBM-POWER technology, and foundation activists from tech industry thought leaders like Google, Canonical and Rackspace, while formally open and democratic, in practice OpenPOWER is still dominated by IBM’s technological, organizational and financial power.

OpenPOWER Chairman, Gordon MacKean of Google showing the Foundation’s growing ecosystem.

Yet every movement starts with a strong advocate, so it’s unfair to question IBM’s sincerity, which in interviews with the leadership team including Foundation President and IBM Fellow Brad McCredie, appears genuine. Indeed, the OpenPOWER Summit had all the trappings of a Come Together moment energizing a group of dissatisfied technology buyers for a showdown with The Man; in this case played by Intel, with a supporting cast of proprietary technology heavyweights like Microsoft, Oracle and VMware.

OpenPOWER President and IBM Fellow Brad McCredie’s Top-10 List

The introduction to a panel of OpenPOWER ISVs by Randall Ross, Canonical’s Ubuntu Community Manager, demonstrated his skill in the art of bringing fellow travelers together on a journey of righteous open technology development that can “change the world”, a refrain that was common throughout the Summit. It’s language designed for a crowd of scrappy developers working out of their garage, i.e. precisely the type that polished Linux and Ubuntu to a state of mainstream competitiveness. The refrain rings a bit hollow, bordering on opportunistic, when introducing speakers and panels consisting of well-sponsored corporate R&D managers looking for early mover advantages onto a new platform. However the software and service advocacy Ross provides is key to OpenPOWER’s ultimate success.

Randall Ross, Canonical, waxes on growing the OpenPOWER community.

OpenPOWER has tapped into an irresistible yearning by technologists and IT buyers for choice, the same feeling people get when facing the ‘take it or leave it’ attitude of the local cable company. In this case it’s directed at what many see as Intel’s unhealthy market dominance in cloud-scale cloud hardware and the concomitant control of proprietary software vendors like Microsoft, Oracle and VMware that thrive on Intel-based infrastructure. The emphasis at this stage of OpenPOWER’s development is distinctly on hardware, putting Intel in the crosshairs by highlighting the need for hardware choices and its putative technological and performance stagnation. The message is resonating since from a fledgling start just a year ago, OpenPOWER now has over 110 members, many of which displayed POWER-based or compatible hardware at the Summit.

Year one of the OpenPOWER Foundation was about establishing POWER8 as an alternative to Xeon for cloud-scale workloads. It’s a work in progress, but in light of the hardware on display at the Summit, most still prototypes, from major companies like Google, Rackspace and Tyan, it’s a successful start. But building motherboards and server chassis is easy, finding significant buyers and displacing incumbent vendors is much more difficult. The big question for the OpenPOWER ecosystem remains, why would someone prefer OpenPOWER to x86? Unfortunately, the Summit offered few detailed arguments. Yes, there was ample talk of a new architecture jumping x86 on the performance curve, but no head-to-head benchmarks or performance analyses of the type Intel is known for producing that specify how and under what conditions OpenPOWER achieves its claimed 60% price-performance advantage.

Aside from the lack of competitive specifics, another challenge for OpenPOWER is Intel’s focus on the data center business, it’s fastest growing business unit. Namely, OpenPOWER isn’t facing a stationary target. Intel continues to advance its technology, bringing the Haswell CPU architecture to the Xeon E5 series last fall and, with the Xeon D SoCs, using the Broadwell 14nm process for the first time on a server processor. With Intel’s high-end E7 line due for a Haswell-architecture refresh and 22-to-14nm process shrinks on tap for the mid- and high-end Xeon products, OpenPOWER’s competition will only stiffen.

OpenPOWER’s price-performance bluster is natural for an aspiring disruptor, but is mostly just talk since it’s based on a single benchmark, SPEC CPU. Granted, a large, complex and sophisticated processor like POWER8 has some technical advantages, like supporting eight threads per processor core and streamlined access (via CAPI) for external processor or I/O cards to internal CPU memory, but the open question remains how and for which workloads these are best used. One option, likely responsible for the Summit’s shared space as part of GTC, is NVIDIA’s use of OpenPOWER as a foundation for GPU accelerators. Indeed, several of the Summit hardware reveals included GPU cards that as I previously discussed can greatly accelerate deep learning and other applications, and Intel’s updated Phi processor could challenge GPUs in this market.

OpenPOWER hardware on display

Although Google remains typically mum on its OpenPOWER intentions, Google’s presence on the Foundation board and its custom motherboard design indicate the cloud giant sees price-performance benefits for certain workloads like deep learning image categorization or some database applications. The plethora of Chinese firms like Chuanghe, Inspur, Suzhou PowerCore and Tyan on the OpenPOWER product podium was also notable. It is also logical given the country’s official policy for “indigenous innovation,” an effort to reduce China’s dependence on foreign, primarily U.S. technology and increase the level of native technology and product development. Indeed, PowerCore is so far the only firm daring enough to undertake custom OpenPOWER CPU development based on IBM’s published specs. Following the open software model of Linux and Android that has led to market dominance in the developing world, OpenPOWER could find a rapidly growing niche in emerging market data centers.

Just as nature abhors a vacuum, the technology industry similarly abhors a monopoly. Regardless of the product segment, 90%+ market shares are hard to defend and ultimately succumb to disruptive products, entrepreneurs and business models. It once appeared ARM would be the disruptor to Intel’s data center dominance, but delays in producing viable, competitive 64-bit products leaves an opening for OpenPOWER to fill the role of x86 challenger. With a solid technical foundation in POWER8 and IBM’s software stack, a growing product ecosystems and enthusiastic partners, all on display at the OpenPOWER Summit, the movement’s promise and potential is palpable. However, before Intel hits the panic button, OpenPOWER’s second year must pivot from vision to actuality by actually building an alternative warehouse scale computing platform and demonstrating its technical and financial superiority.

OpenPOWER Summit photo album

Originally published at on March 30, 2015.

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