IBM proffers a future with customizable Power chip at the core

NEW YORK – IBM Corp. will open up its Performance Optimized with Enhanced RISC (POWER) 5 processor architecture so other companies can customize the chip for their own products, Big Blue announced at a press conference in New York on Wednesday.

This announcement comes just over 10 years after the first Power microprocessor architecture was released, IBM said.

IBM hopes that increasing collaboration with equipment vendors and building a community of development partners will ultimately make its POWER5 microprocessor the building block for a wide range of electronic devices — from the most compact handheld to the largest supercomputer.

However, firms will still have to license the technology through IBM, the company said.

Nick Donofrio, senior vice-president, technology and manufacturing at IBM, said with this move the company is borrowing some development strategies from Linux, Java and Eclipse. The common ground is that all three rely on some degree of input from a community of developers for product enhancement.

With technology becoming more deeply integrated into business and society, the company’s strategy is to help “build servers and supercomputers with limitless capacity at reasonable prices,” said Irving Wladawsky-Berger, vice-president, technology at IBM.

In the past, firms have pursued their own microprocessor architectures, which has inhibited innovation because users have needed to manage incompatibility issues themselves and wait for a resolution by the technology’s owner, IBM said.

If or when IBM’s strategy comes to fruition, the company contends integration issues between different products could be reduced if they share a common processor architecture. Additionally, because chips cannot get infinitely smaller, IBM believes the future of innovation is in the integration of chips with the rest of a device’s technology and software.

“We have reached the point where the transistors we’re building are not much larger than the atoms they are made of,” said Dr. Bernard S. Myerson, Big Blue’s chief technologist. Also, as microprocessors miniaturize, they consume more power, he added.

These two factors make the predictability of chip development more dubious so another way needs to be found to increase performance and scalability without relying solely on the chip itself. The answer to increasing performance, he said, is integration.

As a part of the strategy, IBM has created a portal for the Power Architecture community to create a place where Power developers can collaborate by sharing resources and development strategies. Additionally, IBM is offering a free Power Architecture Pack and an evaluation kit, which is a simulation environment that allows designers to create custom Power chips to fit with their intellectual property, Donofrio said. Current IBM customers will also have access to a free toolkit consisting of a graphical user interface (GUI) for chip designers, a package design tool and a verification tool to ensure the final product matches specifications.

IBM will also build Power Architecture Centers around the world to assist designers customize Power chips, cards and systems. To start, the centres will be peopled with IBM’s engineers and will grow to include certified third-party providers.

One analyst attending the event said IBM’s development strategy differs significantly from those of its chipmaking rivals, including Intel Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc.

“IBM is creating a computing ecosystem that can be pushed up or down. I can’t really think of anyone else who is doing that,” said Charles King, research director of infrastructure hardware for Sageza Group Inc. “Intel has taken a very different approach, of creating specific processors for specific markets.”

King said he expects IBM’s strategy to be a successful one, and sees the Power architecture as an emerging industry standard. He also noted that IBM’s plans to open its development process gives the company access to a broader talent pool than is available to more proprietary designers.

“You get smart people to help you, and you see where that leads,” King said.

Chinese PC company Culturecon has licensed the Power Architecture to build China’s first all-Chinese CPU. Right now, CPUs on the market cannot recognize Chinese characters, therefore software that translates from English to Chinese languages is needed, said Henry M. Chang, executive director at Culturecon. Having CPUs would really bring down the costs of computing in the country, he added.

– With files from IDG News Service

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