IBM, Freescale Reunite for the Sake of the Power Processors
February 13, 2006 Timothy Prickett Morgan
The launch of the PowerPC Alliance was nearly 15 years ago, and one of the partners on the Power chip, Apple, has abandoned the three-way partnership and shacked up with chipmaker Intel. For the past several years, as IBM went its way with Power4, Power5, and PowerPC 970 chips for servers and Cell and other custom chips for games and electronics machines, it has drifted away from former PowerPC partner Motorola, which actually went so far as to spin out the PowerPC chip business as a standalone unit called Freescale Semiconductor.
Now that Freescale is a separate and smaller company, it needs to collaborate with as many players in the Power chip market as possible, and that means making up with IBM, joining the Power.org development community that is dedicated to the Power architecture, and working to ensure the future cross-compatibility of Power processors from IBM, Freescale, and other Power chip licensees. That is why Freescale and IBM last week declared that they would stop ignoring each other and start working together.
The announcement was made at the International Solid-State Circuits show in San Francisco by John Kelly, senior vice president of technology and intellectual property at IBM, and Michel Mayer, chairman and CEO of Freescale. Their announcements were a little thin in terms of detailing exactly how the two vendors would converge their Power chip roadmaps, but Freescale now gets equal billing as a founding member of Power.org–and presumably a significant say in how the Power chip architecture will evolve. IBM needs to collaborate to spread the cost of development of Power processors over as many partners as possible and to solicit as many good ideas as it can from chip experts around the world. This is why the Power.org community was established last year. And Motorola’s and then Freescale’s absence from the community was as glaring as was Apple’s. We now know why Apple didn’t join. And Freescale never did say why it did not. But, no matter. As of last week, that is all water under the bridge. (It could have been a northbridge or a southbridge–or maybe both.)
The PowerPC Alliance has had its ups and downs over the years. IBM created 32-bit PowerPC processors for servers and Motorola was given the task of delivering the 64-bit PowerPC 620 and 630 chips–which were supposed to be the first 64-bit PowerPC chips. These projects failed, and a decade ago, IBM’s Rochester, Minnesota, labs bailed out the Power server lines of IBM and Bull by creating variants of IBM’s versions of the PowerPC that supported 64-bits. These chips are the predecessors of IBM’s current dual-core Power5 and Power5+ processors, and are largely responsible for the ascendancy of IBM as a provider of Unix servers; the same server platforms with different labels on them run IBM’s OS/400 platform or Linux. Since this time, Motorola concentrating on supplying about half the chips that Apple used in laptops and desktops (with IBM getting the other half) and on creating embedded processors for cars, network equipment, and other electronic devices. IBM has concentrated on midrange and high-end servers with its Power chips, HPC clusters like Blue Gene/L using 32-bit chips, 64-bit gaming chips (like Cell and Power-X), with a smidgen of embedded devices. IBM has been talking about “Power Everywhere” for the past two years, saying the Power architecture spans from the smallest embedded devices to the largest supercomputers, but in all honesty, what IBM could honestly say is “Power Everywhere But on the PC.” This is particularly ironic, given that the PowerPC Alliance sought to create an alternative to the X86 that would span the same range IBM is talking about–but including the PC. (Hence, the name PowerPC.)
Just because IBM and Freescale are reuniting for the sake of the Power architecture–a simple example of enlightened self-interest if there ever was one–don’t think that these two are gearing up to take another run at the desktop. “Innovation is no longer centered on the PC, but has moved out to other areas,” explained Mayer. “This is the world where Power not only lives, but thrives.” Indeed, Freescale just celebrated the 200 millionth PowerPC chip shipment, IBM is selling tens of millions of Power chips in game machines, and has a very lucrative server business based on its own Power variants. But a Power-based PC, running Windows and Linux, seems out of the question. “It was not worth it to try to fight Intel,” said Mayer, saying that the amount of resources needed to build a PC ecosystem was enormous. “We will let AMD do that–and they do it quite well,” he quipped. Mayer was vague at the suggestion that Freescale might license the Cell architecture to find some use for it.
Kelly said that there were no plans to open source any Power chip designs, something Sun Microsystems has committed to doing with its “Niagara” T1 Sparc processors. “We will not let the architecture be fractured,” said Kelly. “We have opened up for collaboration, but we control it so Power doesn’t become a multiheaded monster.”
To some ways of looking at it, this has, of course, already happened, since IBM chips are missing Freescale instructions and features, and visa versa. This renewed partnership is about fixing this. The Power chip’s instruction set architecture and the merging or at least overlapping of the IBM and Freescale PowerPC and Power roadmaps will be controlled by the Power Architecture Advisory Council within Power.org. (Think of it as the United Nations Security Council and you have the right image.) IBM and Freescale say they will collaborate on developing a common Power instruction set architecture and develop extensions that allow Power to push into new markets. Both companies will put a heavy emphasis on Linux support in the future Power architecture, since Linux is being deployed on many embedded devices as well as servers. (And I think, despite the cynicism of both IBM and Freescale, more and more desktops.) The companies will also do joint and separate marketing and ISV development programs to boost the Power ecosystem.