IBM yesterday announced a bevy of product and partnership strategies to help take its Power microprocessors beyond servers to a multitude of corporate and consumer devices.
The company is observing a sea change in chip design: The industry is near the limits of the gains it can wring out of hardware advances, executives said. Future chip improvements will need to come from better integration of chips with the systems they run, in IBM's view.
"Integration eclipses gigahertz," said Bernie Meyerson, who heads IBM's semiconductor development. "You can't make things smaller forever. What happens when the individual layers in your transistor get down to the dimensions of what they're made out of, which is, roughly, atoms?"
IBM plans to address that challenge with two approaches that have been a foundation of its corporate strategy since Sam Palmisano took control as IBM's CEO. First, it will abide by its "on-demand" mantra and focus on a flexible, holistic approach to chip design, treating software and other system components as key to technical advancements, said vice president of technology and strategy Irving Wladawsky-Berger. Second, it will work closely with outside partners.
Toward that end, IBM announced new licensing and manufacturing options, and plans to build a community of development partners around its Power architecture. Sony has licensed the Power technology for use in future consumer electronics, and will work with IBM to customize the chips it will use.
Apple already uses a variant of the previous generation Power4 processor from IBM in its Power Mac products, the G5, and expects to be able to offer 3GHz Macs this year, with significant potential for future development using the architecture. Industry-watchers speculate that Apple may in future move to processors based on the Power5 architecture IBM showed yesterday.
Sony disclosed that it has licensed the Power Architecture from IBM. Sony said Power offers versatility and a unique combination of low power and high performance, making it optimal for a wide range of consumer devices.
IBM also had a selection of partners and customers on hand to endorse its development strategy.
"It's not about an architecture, it's about the combination" of chips with other hardware and software products, said Red Hat's executive vice president of sales Alex Pinchev. IBM's Power chips in combination with Red Hat's Linux operating system have driven improvements in system virtualization and manageability, he said.
Representatives of Hong Kong-based Culturecom Holdings spoke of their forthcoming native-Chinese processing technology, under joint development with IBM since 2001.
"The ability to process in Chinese directly, without any translation software, will bring the cost for computing down tremendously," said Henry Chang Manayan, Culturecom's executive director.
IBM also previewed its Power5 processor, due out in the second half of the year, and announced that it will begin shipping blade servers based on the Power architecture in April.
IBM's Power5 will be the "brain" of a new line of powerful computer systems that will be introduced in 2004. The module pictured holds several Power5 chips on a single ceramic package. Collectively, these chips contain more than 2.8 billion tiny transistors and miles of copper wiring.
In a presentation during the event, Dr Bernard Meyerson, chief technologist, IBM Systems & Technology Group, disclosed that IBM is working on future Power chips that can physically reconfigure themselves – adding memory or accelerators, for example – to optimize performance or power utilization for a specific application. "The chip you have may not be the chip you bought," he said.
One analyst attending the event said IBM's development strategy differs significantly from those of its chipmaking rivals, including Intel and Sun.
"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. "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.