Advanced Computing in the Age of AI | Saturday, September 23, 2023

Google Tests Homegrown Power8 Servers 

Ever since Google joined as one of the first members of the OpenPower Consortium that IBM started last year, everyone has been wondering what Google is up to. The search engine giant is, in fact, building prototype servers based on IBM's twelve-core Power8 processors, chips that are due to ship in commercial systems made by Big Blue sometime in the middle of this year.

The OpenPower Consortium was formed last August by IBM to open up the hardware and firmware of its Power processors for others to license and use. IBM is doing this for a number of reasons.

First of all, hyperscale datacenter operators, who account for around a fifth or so of server shipments each quarter these days, are building their own machines or at least designing them and farming out the manufacturing to third parties. Such companies are never going to buy a general-purpose Power System from IBM. As ARM Holdings so aptly demonstrates, it is sometimes better to license technology than to try to hold onto it.

Moreover, China, which has had an appetite for Power-based systems in recent years, has slowed its purchases. The Chinese government wants to develop more of its own chip technology and build its own systems, and that is one reason why Power Systems sales are slumping in recent quarters. It is also why a new company called Suzhou PowerCore was formed in January, which has licensed Power8 chip technology from IBM to make its own variants of the processors. These will be manufactured by IBM at first from its East Fishkill, New York plant, but Suzhou PowerCore will probably end up using a different chip fab at some point. Perhaps even one in China. Suzhou PowerCore aims to make Power8 variants aimed at servers.

The underside of IBM's Power8 chip, early silicon from August 2013

The underside of IBM's Power8 chip, early silicon from August 2013

The point is, if IBM wants Google or the Chinese government to get interested in Power machines, it has to open the technology up, even at the risk of spawning some competition for its own machines and their AIX and IBM i operating systems. This could even be part of a long-term server manufacturing exit strategy on the part of IBM. The company could partner on Power chip designs with Google, Suzhou PowerCore, and others – much as it did with Apple and Motorola in the early days of the PowerPC Alliance – and farm out server manufacturing to someone else and just sell its operating systems, middleware, databases, and services.

Graphics chip and accelerator maker Nvidia, networking equipment maker Mellanox Technologies, and motherboard and system maker Tyan are also original members of the OpenPower Consortium, and they have been, like Google, pretty quiet about what they are up to.

Like every other company, Google wants a second choice of supplier or even a third when it comes to a key raw material for its business. Google is secretive about its infrastructure, and only occasionally reveals its server or datacenter designs and talks, usually through research papers, about some of its software.

When asked last August about its plans in the OpenPower Consortium, Google didn't say much. "We believe in openness and we are looking forward to the innovation that the OpenPower Consortium will bring to the datacenter hardware and software industry," a canned statement said, and then added that the effort "has the potential to establish Power architecture as a viable option for applications running within Google's datacenters." The company also said that it was "early days," and it was "looking forward" to seeing what would come out of the effort.

EnterpriseTech was talking to Doug Balog, general manager of the Power Systems division at IBM, about Samsung Electronics joining the OpenPower Consortium, and asked about what Google is up to with Power chips.

"They have contributed code to the open firmware that we have put out there," said Balog. "They definitely have engineers working on this. And it is fair to say that they have done some of their own unique design work around Power8 systems. They have some early Power8 systems running – that they designed – in their test labs. But what they plan to do with them, they haven't said publicly yet."

Just like big banks in days gone by could afford to have at least one of everything in their datacenters, hyperscale datacenter operators like Google, Facebook, and Amazon can afford to build anything they want. None of this means that Google, Facebook, or Amazon will actually put such machines in production. Facebook, for instance, has tested machines based on Tilera many-core RISC processors and has designed systems with current and impending ARM processors. But thus far, it sticks to X86 chips in its production environment.

The other interesting bit of news is that Gordon MacKean, engineering director for the platforms group at Google, has been nominated as chairman of the OpenPower Foundation, the organization that runs the consortium. This is an interesting choice in that MacKean has been a director of software development at Nortel Networks, Extreme Networks, and Matisse Networks for a decade and a half before joining Google six and a half years ago. Clearly, MacKean knows a thing or two about networking and if this will be brought to bear on a Power8 system design is interesting to contemplate. The twelve-core Power8 chip has high clock frequencies – ranging from about 2.5 GHz to 5.5 GHz – and up to 7.6 Tb/sec of aggregate I/O bandwidth coming onto and off of the die. So there are all kinds of things Google could do with it.

Brad McCredie, an IBM Fellow and former chip designer who set up the consortium, has been named president of the foundation and IBM engineer Jeff Brown is chairman of the steering committee. Michael Diamond, who is in charge of marketing at Nvidia, was named vice president of the foundation.

Thus far, says Balog, fewer than ten companies have paid their dues and done all of their paperwork to become formal members of the OpenPower Consortium. A number of these companies have decided to remain anonymous. Balog said there were another 70 interested parties who were at various stages of joining up. By the way, there is no fee for academic institutions to join up, but they do have to do the paperwork to protect IBM's intellectual property rights.