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Unfazed, IBM pumps Power chip program

By Stephen Shankland

Story last modified Thu Jun 09 12:58:00 PDT 2005

Fresh after getting publicly dumped by Apple Computer, IBM is taking new measures to spread its Power processors and make them a stronger competitor to Intel chips.

On Wednesday, IBM announced that 11 new members have joined a consortium of Power processor users. It also released specifications and software to make it easier to build computers using the forthcoming Power-based Cell processor that IBM, Toshiba and Sony developed. In addition, Big Blue has new customers in medical imaging and in defense, said Nigel Beck, chairman of the Power.org consortium.

And on a new section of its Web site, IBM makes the case that most growth in the processor market is taking place with servers, game consoles and mobile devices--markets where Power is used--not personal computers. IBM disclosed the site in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission on Wednesday.


What's new:
IBM has found new allies and released new software to promote its Power processors, but Apple's defection to Intel tarnishes the effort.

Bottom line:
Big Blue likely will gain more from gaming consoles built on Power chips than it loses from Apple's departure. The changes help deepen the divide between IBM's Power and Intel's x86 chip families.

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Apple has been one of the highest-profile customers for Power processors, buying PowerPC chips from IBM and Motorola spin-off Freescale Semiconductor since 1994. That changed Monday when Apple announced its 2006 shift to Intel processors, chips it disparaged for years.

But IBM, far from being daunted, instead set the stage for a showdown with Intel by declaring just how ambitious its Power plans are: "IBM's strategy is to spread its open chip technology and establish Power Architecture as the dominant industry standard," Big Blue said on its Web site.

On the one side, Apple's departure tarnishes the image of the group and its related "Power Everywhere" marketing campaign, said Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff. "This certainly takes some of the sheen off of it," he said.

On the other, for burnishing the Power image, the arrival of Cell should offset the departure of Apple. "We believe opening hardware and software specs for Cell will likely expand interest in Power.org," Pund-IT analyst Charles King said in a report.

Linux-on-Power allies hurt
Though Apple's move won't hurt IBM's Power processor manufacturing business much, there are direct effects elsewhere in its business. The company is trying to make Linux useful on its PowerPC- and Power5-based servers, but Apple's move left in the lurch two allies in that effort. Terra Soft Solutions and the Fedora PowerPC project both use Macs in their efforts to develop Linux for Power-based computers.

Terra Soft, which sells Yellow Dog Linux and Macs with the operating system already installed, said it has options to survive Apple's switch to Intel processors. In a statement, CEO Kai Staats said the company doesn't plan to switch its product line to Intel chips but that it still plans to sell its Y-HPC version of Linux for high-performance computing clusters, which can be used on systems such as IBM's JS20 blade servers. And, Staats added, "Things are already in motion to enable a world of greater Power Architecture diversity."

Colin Charles, a lead programmer for the effort to bring the Fedora version of Linux to PowerPC chips, pledged future support for the project.

"I'm not going to back off the project, even if it means that its real use will only last another two more years, and after that, it'll just be for big iron IBM (computers)," Charles said. "IBM hardware will always still exist, though consumer Apple stuff is going away in about two years, sadly--I think it's a big mistake."

Snubbed in public
The Apple divorce was very public. Apple CEO Steve Jobs sharply criticized IBM's PowerPC production during his Worldwide Developer Conference keynote address Monday, spotlighting the fact that his company couldn't deliver a promised 3GHz PowerPC processor or a laptop with the latest G5 generation chip.

"We can envision some amazing products we want to build for you, but we don't know how to build them with the future PowerPC road map," Jobs said.

IBM's response is to fight back with numbers, calling out In-Stat statistics forecasting that the game console market will grow from 3.5 million units this year to 33.5 million in 2008. Sony, the top seller of game consoles, is using the Cell chip in its future PlayStation 3, due in 2006. And Microsoft's Xbox 360, due later this year, uses a Power processor that Beck said is code-named Waternoose.

IBM hopes Cell will be used by new customers beyond gaming, though. To that end, Big Blue released an open-source version of Power computer "firmware"--software that runs beneath the operating system, helps a computer boot up and provides operating system access to many hardware features.

It also released software specifications that let programmers use the unusual architecture of Cell itself. The chip has a single Power processing core aided by eight other cores IBM calls specialized processor units. In game consoles, the eight helper cores handle graphics tasks, but IBM wants to let programmers use them for other tasks, such as encryption or image processing.

Using the extra cores is unwieldy now, though. "We need to make the programming model simpler," Beck said, and IBM hopes opening the Cell specification will help others steer IBM in the right direction for programming tool improvement.

Beyond gaming
Two nongaming customers are using Cell, Beck said, though he wouldn't name them. One is involved in medical imaging, and the other is tapping the chip for military use in image recognition and targeting, he said.

Though others in the Power.org consortium may offer suggestions on what features should be added to Power processors, IBM isn't giving up control over chip design features such as the set of instructions it can execute. Power.org members "wanted transparency--to see proposals for the instruction set architecture coming in and out--but they did not want democracy," Beck said.

Eleven new organizations joined the 16 existing members of the Power.org consortium. Among them are AboveMicro Technologies, which provides custom chip design services; Celestica, which designs and builds computers often sold under other companies' names; Rapport, which sells chips that can be reconfigured on the fly; TimeLab, which builds chips to replace analog circuitry; and Universal Scientific Industrial, which designs Power-based home media centers.

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