IBM has announced the launch of a new licensing consortium for its Power architecture, a sign that the company is feeling increased pressure from rival processor architectures.
IBM first released Power - Performance Optimisation With Enhanced RISC - as a reduced instruction set computer architecture in 1990, building on work done for a prototype digital telephone network in 1974. Although that programme, dubbed the 801 Project for the research centre building number where the work had taken place, woudl be cancelled after only a year, the first Power products - workstations and servers - would prove a popular option for those who preferred RISC systems to CISC.
Its successor, 1992s PowerPC architecture, was - as the name suggests - aimed at the burgeoning personal computer market, but the success of Microsoft's Windows led to the CISC x86 architecture gaining dominance and all-but shutting PowerPC out of the market. For some years smaller companies used PowerPC parts, with Commodore's Amiga computers having PowerPC upgrade options and Apple's machines running on PowerPC chips - but the former would soon go out of business in the face of the Wintel duopoly while the latter would move to Intel x86 processors in 2006.
Now, Power is all but unheard of on the desktop. IBM itself sells a range of high-performance computers (HPCs) with Power-architecture parts, and at the other end of the market several companies license the technology for embedded systems - including Microsoft, which uses a PowerPC chip in the Xbox 360, Sony, with the PlayStation 3, and Nintendo for its GameCube, Wii and Wii U consoles.
Even in these markets, however, Power is starting to struggle: while IBM has won a place in the Wii U, the console isn't selling well - and both Microsoft and Sony's upcoming next-generation products have, like Apple before them, made the switch to x86 processors. It's a problem serious enough for IBM to be mandating a week-long furlough for some of its employees in which they will receive one-third pay - or no pay, in the case of executives - in order to prevent another round of layoffs, following 3,000 departures from the company last month.
With ARM eating away at the Power architecture in embedded circles, x86 in the console market and GPGPU and x86 co-processor systems dominating HPC, it's clear IBM needs to do something - and that something is the OpenPower Consortium, a group of companies which will be given full access to the Power standard.
'The founding members of the OpenPower Consortium represent the next generation in datacentre innovation,' claimed IBM's Steve Mills of the group's creation. 'Combining our talents and assets around the Power architecture can greatly increase the rate of innovation throughout the industry.'
The initial membership list comprises IBM itself, Google, Nvidia, Tyan and Mellanox. Nvidia's presence in the list is of particular interest: the company produces a range of embedded ARM chips and has a strong presence in the HPC market with its GPU-based accelerator products, but has no x86 licence nor presence in the CPU market beyond its mobile-oriented Tegra parts.
Each company is granted the ability to customise, fabricate and sell processors based on the latest iteration of IBM's Power architecture, with improvements made by each feeding back into the consortium for others to benefit from. True to its 'Open' prefix, anyone willing to pony up the cash can join the group. The target markets, IBM has claimed, include servers, networking and storage devices.