IBM Unveils Power8 Chip As Open Hardware

Google and other OpenPower Foundation partners express interest in IBM's Power8 chip designs and server motherboard specs.

it has re-engineered the chip to make it more open to third-party modification and use.

It has dispensed with the Power7's GX++ interface to external communications and substituted the Coherence Accelerator Processor Interface (CAPI) on top of the serial expansion bus for connecting peripherals. Nvidia will use CAPI to tie its latest graphics processor unit directly into the Power8 CPU. Doing so means both processors may share the same memory and closely coordinate their tasks. CAPI could also be used to connect an application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) to a Power8 or a field-programmable gate array, which can be programmed by a third party or Power8 server customer to do work the customer wants in connection with the CPU.

"This is the first truly disruptive advancement in high-end server technology in decades," said Tom Rosamilia, senior VP, IBM Systems and Technology Group, in the announcement. He said both IBM customers and third parties will be able to design new data-handling applications based on the Power8 architecture. IBM has optimized its own big-data software systems to run on Power8, including IBM Solution for BLU Acceleration, IBM Solution for Analytics, and IBM Solution for Hadoop.

IBM also announced it will support Ubuntu Server on Power8 for the first time, along with previously supported Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Suse Linux.

Sibley says the Power8 architecture's expanding feature set, along with its big-data handling capabilities, made it more attractive to partners and third parties. By building a wider ecosystem, IBM will ultimately find a wider market for its Power chips.

One way to exploit the CAPI interface is to produce applications that manage the hardware resources for specific purposes. IBM will produce an optimization program for exploiting a flash drawer -- a set of flash drives on a rackmounted tray that slides in and out. Closely tied to the CPU, such a flash memory pool could be used to augment RAM or caching operations in connection with data-intensive applications, such as Hadoop or other NoSQL systems, he says.

"You will see workload-specific acceleration applications," he predicts, asserting that the wider bandwidth for data movement built into the chip, along with on-chip memory controllers, gives the Power8 the ability to move data four times as fast as comparable x86 systems.

The starting price on a Power8 server is $7,973.

Could the growing movement toward open-source hardware rewrite the rules for computer and networking hardware the way Linux, Apache, and Android have for software? Also in the Open Source Hardware issue of InformationWeek: Mark Hurd explains his "once-in-a-career opportunity" at Oracle.