IBM sees Power processor as its next Linux

IBM Corp. hopes to do for its Power processor what it helped do for Linux: create a bigger market in which lots of vendors can play, and earn more money for IBM in the process.

At an event in Barcelona last week it announced that 11 new members have joined, a consortium set up in December for organizations developing Power-based chips, systems, software and tools. IBM also said last week that it would release the main specifications for the Power-based Cell processor, which it developed with Sony Corp. and Toshiba Corp.

The meeting in Barcelona came a few days after Apple Computer Inc. announced that it will phase out PowerPC chips from its Macintosh computers and switch to Intel Corp. processors instead.

The timing was unfortunate for IBM and did little to promote its message that Power is a chip for all systems, from supercomputers to PCs and handheld devices. “From a marketing perspective it put a bit of a damper on the ‘Power Everywhere’ logo,” said Gary Barnett, a research director at U.K. analyst company Ovum Ltd.

Still, momentum behind Power has been building since IBM released specifications and design tools for its Power processors early last year, according to Michel Teyssedre, IBM’s vice president of strategic business development for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Playing down Apple’s decision, he argued that PCs account for only a small proportion of all processors sold. IBM’s goal is to propagate Power in what it sees as faster-growing markets such as set-top boxes, gaming consoles and automotive applications, he said. Power-based processors have been picked for the next consoles from Sony Corp. Nintendo Co. Ltd. and Microsoft Corp.

By releasing the Power specifications, IBM hopes other companies will create custom Power processors along with adjacent chips for encryption or graphics processing, for example. The group, which also includes providers of manufacturing services and software, will help ensure compatibility between components and tools, allowing products to be reused rather than designed from scratch, Teyssedre said.

“What we want to do with Power is exactly the same as we have done with Linux,” Teyssedre said. “It’s the same game.”

Still, he acknowledged the task is more complex for Power, and important issues are yet to be decided. For example, it is unclear yet whether companies developing Power-based components will have to pay fees to IBM for its Power designs. “That is not yet defined totally,” Teyssedre said. IBM is discussing proposals with members, he said.

Ovum analyst Barnett has high hopes for but said it faces several obstacles. Among them, IBM needs to come up with a governance model that “is not too bullying but keeps enough control on the tiller to stop Power going off at right-angles,” he said.

“ is still a tiny little baby. They need to get it breathing, give it it’s own momentum, get it walking, and then make it run,” Barnett said.

Still, is “fascinating and chockablock with potential” because it could offer system builders a faster, more affordable way to design high-performance processors, Barnett said.

At one time, designing a processor for an embedded system, such as a security appliance or set-top box, meant starting from scratch and working alone. As x86 processors became more powerful, more companies used general-purpose processors and added special software to achieve, for example, faster encryption.

But for the best performance, functions must be “burned in silicon,” and could offer a fast and affordable route to new chip design, he said.

Opportunities are limited in the PC market, and U.K. design company Arm Ltd. has sewn up the handset business, Barnett said. But there remains “a vast middleground” where the shape of future systems remains undetermined and where could win share, including set-top boxes, home media servers, automobiles and avionics, he said.

Teyssedre admitted that much work needs to be done, but’s continued expansion is a positive sign, he said.

“It’s a big bet,” he said. “Will we succeed? I don’t know. But when we backed Linux four years ago there were a lot of questions then too.”

The new members include the Barcelona Supercomputing Center, which uses Power processors for its Mare Nostrum supercomputer, and Celestica Inc. and Universal Scientific Industrial Co Ltd., which provide electronics manufacturing services.

The 16 founding members included Sony Corp., Chartered Semiconductor Manufacturing Ltd., Novell Inc. and Red Hat Inc. More information is at

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