IBM teams with Xilinx to take on Intel with Power chips

IBM has partnered with Xilinx to make its programmable chips work with IBM's Power processors

IBM has partnered with chip maker Xilinx to expand the use of IBM Power processors in servers, taking on Intel for a bigger slice of the data center market.

It's one of several announcements IBM is making Monday around its Open Power effort, which it launched last year to breath new life into Power by licensing the design for use by other companies.

Penguin Computing and Italy's E4 Computer Engineering are each building high-performance computers based on Power chips. And IBM said it worked with Nvidia to include its GPUs in IBM's Watson supercomputer, another Power-based system.

It's a big change for IBM. The company used to be the exclusive maker of Power servers, and it used primarily IBM technologies. But with the Unix market in decline, IBM opened up the platform to let third parties build Power products.

Xilinx develops programmable chips known as FPGAs that can accelerate certain types of server workloads. The deal will allow IBM and its partners to incorporate Xilinx chips in Power systems, said Brad McCredie, an IBM fellow and president of the OpenPower Foundation.

With Moore's Law starting to slow, FPGAs are becoming "mandatory" for increasing performance in servers, he said. "It's how we'll continue the cost and performance improvements that Moore’s Law has given us," McCredie said.

Xilinx's chips will work with IBM's CAPI (Coherent Accelerator Processor Interface) which provides them with direct access to the memory caches on Power processors, boosting performance.

IBM Power is one of two platforms trying to challenge Intel's dominant x86 architecture in servers. The other is ARM. Qualcomm announced plans to develop its first ARM server chip, and said it was working with Xilinx to combine FPGAs with ARM processors.

IBM and ARM both have their work cut out to build an ecosystem of software and hardware to match that of Intel. And Intel is already combining its chips with FPGAs, a strategy that will accelerate with its planned purchase of Altera.

But some customers are keen to see alternative server platforms emerge, for cost as well as performance reasons, and the fresh competition should be good for the industry.

On Monday, Penguin is announcing a new high-performance computing system based on IBM's Power8 processor. Known as Magna 2001, it's a 2U system with 12 storage drives and 32 memory DIMMs that support up to 2TB of RAM. Like other Penguin systems, it runs a Linux stack.

With up to 96 virtual CPU cores, it's a capable platform for virtualization, said Penguin President and CEO Tom Coull. And the Power8 processor supports a large memory footprint and high memory bandwidth, making it also well suited to cloud storage.

"We believe it will be a credible contender to x86," he said.

Magna 2001 is available now and will be on show at the SC15 supercomputing conference in Austin Monday, Coull said.

Details of the system E4 Computer Engineering is announcing were not immediately available.

Other OpenPower servers already on the market include two models from Taiwan's Tyan, a system from Cirrascale that incorporates Nvidia GPUs, and several models from RedPower that are on sale in China, according to IBM.

Systems have also been announced by RackSpace, and by three Chinese vendors -- Inspur, NeuCloud and Chuanghe. China could be a big opportunity for IBM because the government there is encouraging development of home grown products, and the OpenPower model allows Chinese firms to build both Power processors and Power servers.

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James Niccolai

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