IBM's new Power8 doubles performance of Watson chip

IBM has also included a CAPI port so third-party components are easier to connect

IBM for the first time revealed details on Monday of its 12-core Power8 chip, which is twice as fast as the Power7 chip used in the Watson supercomputer.

To make the chip faster, IBM has turned to a more advanced manufacturing process, increased the clock speed and added more cache memory, but perhaps the biggest change heralded by the Power8 cannot be found in the specifications.

After years of restricting Power processors to its servers, IBM is throwing open the gates and will be licensing Power8 to third-party chip and component makers.

IBM has moved away from some proprietary board-level technologies with Power8, and has included a connector so third-party graphics processors and other components can be easily linked to the chip.IBM recently announced it would open up the Power chip intellectual property and license it to third parties including Google. The IP is being opened up as part of a development alliance called OpenPower Consortium, and one of the members is Nvidia, which is expected to develop a graphics processor that connects to the Power8 processor. Tyan is building a server based on the Power8 chip.

The previous Power7 chip was perhaps best known for its place in the Watson supercomputer, which famously competed against humans on the U.S. TV quiz show "Jeopardy" -- and won.

Watson also found use in areas like health care and the financial sector. Beyond IBM's traditional market of Unix servers, the Power8 chip is also designed for areas like cloud and big data."Big data is something that is driving [performance]," said Jeff Stuecheli, chief nest architect of IBM Power Systems in the Systems and Technology Development Group. "You have big data, you need big performance."The Power8 chip will support up to 1TB of DRAM in initial server configurations and will offer 230GB per second of sustained memory bandwidth, Stuecheli said.

The external components will be connected via the CAPI (Coherence Attach Processor Interface) port. The CAPI port interfaces with the PCI-Express slot for external components such as GPUs or FPGAs (field programmable gate arrays) to communicate with the chip.The chip is made using the 22-nanometer process. Power8 has a large cache memory, including 512KB of cache per core, 96MB of on-chip shared L3 and 128MB off-chip L4 cache. The L4 cache was removed in Power7, but it comes back with Power8. Each processor core will also support eight threads, giving the chip the ability to run 96 threads simultaneously.IBM wants to share the Power8 technology with a larger ecosystem, and is also working on an open software stack for the processor, Steucheli said. A lot of the tools will help develop high-performance applications.

Stuecheli declined to say when the Power8 chip would be released.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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