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IBM opens up Power chip for customization

The Power5 processor, which runs on iSeries and pSeries machines, is getting a boost from IBM's decision to open up the Power architecture.

In a move that leverages its success with Linux and the open source movement, IBM said it would open up its Power processor architecture so that it can be customized for applications created by outside developers.

The announcement was made Wednesday during a press event in New York.

Executives said the move is intended to encourage developers to add the features and capabilities that will drive new devices and applications. More important, experts say, the move recognizes that innovation is reflected most in the final chip design, rather than in the underlying architecture.

IBM as a company has decided that the chip isn't the be all and end all of a computing system.
Charles King
analystSageza Group

"IBM as a company has decided that the chip isn't the be all and end all of a computing system," said Sageza Group analyst Charles King, who attended the event. "It's the customization of the system that is more important than the type of chip that's driving it."

Also, for the first time, IBM demonstrated the highly anticipated Power5 microprocessor running multiple operating systems (Linux, OS/400 and AIX) in virtual micro-partitions. IBM said it believes that the Power5, a high-end design based on IBM's Power architecture, will drive future versions of Big Blue's server and storage systems.

The Power processor is currently used in IBM's iSeries and pSeries platforms and some Apple Computer products.

"Power is the leading architecture for silicon innovation," said Nick Donofrio, IBM's senior vice president of technology and manufacturing, in a statement. "In fact, Power was designed from the ground up for massive scalability and is the most customized processor in the world. The time is right to establish it as a more open, modular and pervasive platform, accelerating the creation of next-generation devices, systems and applications."

IBM's plan to open the Power architecture is an extension of previous initiatives to bolster the line, including a less rigid licensing program for the PowerPC chip.

During the event, IBM announced several new programs that encourage other companies, business partners and university researchers to use the technology to create a wide variety of chips that can power a diverse set of electronics products.

Most notably, IBM will establish worldwide Power Architecture Centers to provide customer design assistance for Power chips, cards and systems. Initially, this support will be available from IBM design engineers with the intent to add third-party expertise through a certification process, IBM said.

King said IBM is extending the model it uses in software application development and open source -- license the technology, and let partners customize it.

"I think IBM is trying to get the same open system leverage they use in their Linux models and push that into the hardware space," he said. "If this succeeds, it will be the first really open, open system."

But Illuminata Inc. analyst Gordon Haff, who also attended the event, said that this is "open with a caveat."

"IBM is quite clear that they retain control over the instruction set," he said.

Although IBM made Power processor licenses available to big-time clients long before Wednesday's announcement, this move is clearly about expanding that privilege to smaller companies, Haff said: "If you're a $10 billion company, you're already involved with IBM. This announcement now means that IBM is just extending its scope."

Wednesday's event also included the announcement of new Power processor partners, including Sony, and three customers -- Memory Experts International, Block/Goldring and Christie Digital, which is in the process of replacing HP servers with Power-based iSeries servers.

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