Battle lines are drawn: IBM prepares Power9 to take on Intel and ARM

IBM predicts Power will take a double-digit server chip market share by 2020

IBM has many goals with its upcoming Power9 chip, and one is to challenge the dominance of Intel's x86 chips in the data center.

The company wants chips based on Power architecture to take a double-digit server chip market share by 2020, Doug Balog, general manager for Power Systems at IBM, said in an interview.

It'll be a three-way battle between x86, Power, and ARM, which has a similar goal of a double-digit market share in the next four years. IBM's Power is off to a better start in terms of socket share, Balog said. IBM already is being used in servers, while ARM server processors are largely still being tested.

Intel dominates the data center server chip market with a 90-plus percent market share. But IDC has predicted that Intel's share will shrink as ARM-based chips and AMD's x86-based Zen take away some of that lead.

Power chips are already used in mainframes and high-end servers, and they are starting to show up in low-end and mid-range servers. In the second half of next year, IBM will start shipping servers based on Power9 architecture, which boasts significant upgrades from the current Power8.

It's been a smooth start for Power9, which already has some significant server wins.

Google and Rackspace are making a Power9 server called Zaius, which will ultimately be submitted to the Open Compute open hardware design project. The Google endorsement of Power may lead companies to seriously consider the architecture.

A 200-petaflop supercomputer called Summit with Power9 chips will be deployed in early 2018 by the U.S. Department of Energy at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. When deployed, Summit could be one of the world's fastest computers.

Until a few years ago, IBM was the only company selling Power servers, but today other server makers like Tyan and Supermicro are offering systems with the chips. IBM opened up the Power architecture three years ago through the OpenPower Foundation, which boasts members like Google, Samsung, and Nvidia.

IBM is heavily focused on the fast-growing China market, where Intel is trying to retain its lead. China is turning into a battleground for chip architecture supremacy, with AMD, ARM server chipmaker Qualcomm, and others vendors establishing partnerships with Chinese companies.

IBM is focused on selling Power servers costing more than US$6,000. Chinese vendors could sell Power servers at cheaper prices, but that doesn't bother Balog as long as Power architecture is proliferating.

"They can compete with [IBM], I hope they do. That will be success in my view," Balog said.

Hyperscale servers are a big target market for Power9 chips, which will deliver faster and more power-efficient computing at the rack level than Power8, Balog said.

Server requirements have changed in recent years with more focus on accelerated computing than on building technology around a chip, Balog said.

IBM has doubled the number of Power9 CPU cores to 24, but Balog said co-processors like FPGAs (field-programmable gate arrays) and GPUs are playing a bigger role in server computation. Power9 will support a new interconnect called NVLink so CPUs can communicate with components significantly faster than existing PCI-Express 3.0.

An interface called CAPI, linking FPGAs and new memory types to Power9 chips, will also be faster.

As part of OpenPower Foundation, IBM also licenses its architecture so chip makers can design Power derivatives. It's not yet clear if companies outside IBM will design Power9-based chips.

The company is always looking for licensing partners for the Power architecture, but progress has been slow. For now, Chinese company Suzhou PowerCore Technology is designing Power8 variants for the Chinese market.

The number of "vendors who have the skills to be able to take a sophisticated processor and do derivatives of it for the server market is actually perhaps a smaller universe than we thought," Balog said.

IBM will work with OpenPower Foundation partners to launch Power9, Balog said.

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