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IBM Goes Open Source to Give Old-School Server Chips New Life

A long-term decline that will be difficult to stop.

Computing and services giant IBM did something very unlike IBM today. It has decided to open up its Power chip architecture to outside developers to improve upon it.

In doing so, it’s acting a bit more like ARM, the British company that licenses its core chip designs for third parties like Qualcomm, Applied Micro and Apple to customize. But in this case it is working through an open-source body, the OpenPower Foundation, which it set up last year. The move allows anyone with the technical chops to design and manufacture their own Power-based chip and add their own enhancements to it.

Long considered one of IBM’s crown jewels, Power chips lie at the heart of the Power line of servers that form the backbone of its high-end computing business, the same one that has been giving IBM so much trouble recently. Hardware sales fell 23 percent in the most recently reported quarter.

It’s a rare move for IBM, said analyst Patrick Moorhead, head of the boutique chip industry research firm Moor Insights and Strategy based in Austin. The companies most likely to run with IBM’s designs are up-and-coming chip makers in China that want an alternative to Intel’s Xeon server chips. “They want an alternative that in their minds doesn’t have any security back doors in it,” he said.

IBM’s aim is to prove that companies with large Internet data centers will take to it. One potential candidate is Google, which chairs the OpenPower foundation, but has so far only committed to test systems running the new chips. Google’s custom-designed systems run almost entirely on Intel chips. “IBM has been unable to translate their supposed advantages into a meaningful market share in the market for servers sold and deployed at Internet-scale,” Moorhead said.

One third party getting in on the action is Tyan, a developer of so-called “white box” systems. It showed off a design for hardware running operating systems from IBM, Google and Ubuntu Linux from Canonical.

The move is intended to inject some new life into the steadily declining server-chip business. IBM-built servers based on the Power chips are typically used to run AIX, Big Blue’s variant of Unix, the industrial-strength operating system that dates back to AT&T’s Bell Labs in the 1960s.

But as servers running the open source operating system Linux and using chips from Intel have come to dominate the market, Unix servers in general have been on a long-term decline. Worldwide sales of Unix servers fell by nearly 32 percent in the third quarter of 2013. IBM saw its Power Systems sales fall by nearly a third last year. Another player in that market is Oracle, which in 2010 acquired Sun Microsystems and its SPARC-based line of Unix servers.

But Moorhead said IBM’s decision to share the Power chip designs on an open-source basis may turn out to be a case of too little, too late to reverse the long-term trend. “IBM has some interesting technologies, but right now it’s in crawl-mode,” he said. “They have a lot to prove to a lot of people. It would have been a lot more interesting if they had made this move three years ago.”

On a related note, IBM announced new Power servers based on the latest and greatest of its Power chip designs, the Power8. “For people already running Power systems, I think it’s a good upgrade,” Moorhead said. “It’s probably a really good solution for people who don’t want to move to other kinds of systems.”

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