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

Agam Shah | June 24, 2016
IBM predicts Power will take a double-digit server chip market share by 2020

Summit supercomputer at ORNL

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.

 

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