Power9 Image credit: Jason Richards/ORNL | The Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility’s Summit supercomputer installation continues with the OLCF and IBM teams receiving and installing compute nodes. When it comes online, Summit will deliver more than five times the computational performance of Titan’s 18,688 nodes, using only approximately 4,600 nodes. Summit will come online in late 2018 for early science, and will be available to users in January 2019.

Frenemies: IBM Teams with Google on Power9 to Compete Against Intel and Amazon in Machine Learning, Data Centers

After spurring Intel’s growth in the CPU market and making the technology company a household name, IBM may be issuing a direct challenge to the chip maker by releasing its new Power9 CPU to the open market. In what may turn out to be a soap opera without the sex or bad lighting, Google seems to be pairing up with IBM by deploying  the Power9 chips in its data centers on Zaius P9 servers it developed with Rackspace after Intel cozied up to Amazon AWS in an apparent attempt to corner the IoT (Internet of Things) universe.

After stumbling in the mobile device market, Intel now seems determined not to make the same mistake in the IoT field. Intel has been investing heavily in the area*(see comment below) along with partnerships with Amazon AWS to create a co-dominance similar to the one it enjoyed with Microsoft in the 1990s known as Wintel. After beating back the Intel/Motorola PowerPC chips to be the brains inside of Apple and pulling away from AMD in recent years, Intel seems to have settled into a near-monopoly of the PC & Server CPU market.

The competition that Intel faced during the past 40 years from AMD may arguably be attributed to IBM, which agreed to use Intel’s chips in their new PC back in 1981 as long as there was a second source supplier to prevent granting Intel a monopoly as a supplier. Now IBM may be creating another headache for Intel by directly marketing its own CPUs to the open market. Though it was once a supplier to Apple (which does not make servers), IBM has traditionally manufactured CPUs for use in its own servers rather than to competitors. Since HP’s descent into irrelevancy, IBM is the only major IT company dominant in software, services, and servers.

IBM claims that server manufacturers Bull Atos and Hitachi are on board to use the chips in servers. Red Hat has announced RHEL (Red Hat Enterprise Linux) for Power9. The 15 Megawatt Summit Supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Laboratories contains 9200 Power9 CPUs.

So is Intel going to sit on its butt like it did when smartphones and tablets came on the scene? Probably not. Andy Grove himself preached the virtues of paranoia in business. Intel is shipping the Nervana Neural Network Processor, which it claims is the first processing unit “designed from the ground up for artificial intelligence” and deep learning.

Since HP’s descent into irrelevancy, IBM is the only major IT company dominant in software, services, and servers.

Intel’s Xeon Phi processors boast up to 72 cores while retaining the ubiquitous x86 architecture. This means that existing developers and code can run on higher performance processors, and more available software compilers. While IBM has done an about-face and recently opened up availability to the power9 chip via the OpenPower Foundation, the x86 architecture has a 40+ year head start building a diverse programmer and peripheral community. To be fair, the Power Architecture has never gone away, and continues in embedded systems and special purpose applications. In what may be a sign of its faded relevancy however, its official supporting foundation, Power.org appears to be offline at the time of this publication. Perhaps it is replaced by the OpenPower Foundation, but I can find nothing confirming that. Neither Motorola or Power.org sponsor Freescale Semiconductor even exist anymore. Freescale was purchased in 2015 by NXP Semiconductors, which also partners with Google. (See what I mean about the soap opera?)

It is too early to say what will happen as these alliances evolve. Intel & IBM will both be with us for the forseeable future. How will companies threatened by IBM in the software market react? Intel does not compete with them, so just like Intel wisely exited the network appliance market not to compete with customers like Cisco, it is likely that many big software vendors will be reluctant to feed (what they perceive as) the IBM beast. Oracle purchased Sun Microsystems but we no longer see many Sparc Servers running anything but Oracle, do we?

As the world turns, so go the days of our lives.

*Sadly, while Intel seems commited to the IoT market, it appears to be abandoning its makers and hobbyists. While it may make sense from a short term P&L point of view, it’s a tragedy for education, innovation, and for kids who want to learn this stuff, like I did back in the 1980s from the stuff I found at Radio Shack & Heathkit. I can trace my career path directly back to those roots, and getting my ham radio license in 1980 at the age of 12 (KA8IUD, then KA8DBT after I let it lapse).

Above photo credit: Jason Richards/ORNL | The Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility’s Summit supercomputer installation continues with the OLCF and IBM teams receiving and installing compute nodes.When it comes online, Summit will deliver more than five times the computational performance of Titan’s 18,688 nodes, using only approximately 4,600 nodes. Summit will come online in late 2018 for early science, and will be available to users in January 2019.

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