IBM’s Open Chip Strategy

Barron’s writes about IBM’s plan to try and ensure the survival of its Power microprocessors:

At a New York City presentation on Wednesday, IBM announced it would allow anyone to freely download a bit of the once-proprietary specs for its Power microprocessors. Big Blue hopes that a Linux-like community of outsiders will design computing products around the Power chip — products IBM hasn’t thought of.

For 40 years, the chip industry has been able to speed up computing by shrinking transistors, said IBM chip developer Bernie Meyerson. But you can’t make things smaller forever. Transistors are approaching a scale in which their features are the size of the atoms they’re made of. “It’s the most historic discontinuity that our industry has ever had,” he told Wednesday’s audience.

Instead of making a standard chip faster and faster, IBM says that designers will have to boost performance by adapting microprocessors to specific computing environments. IBM uses a special version of its Power chip in its Blue Gene prototype for a desktop supercomputer. Other variations will go into future products from Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony.

By embedding its Power circuits in consumer products like gaming consoles, IBM hopes to reach the production volumes necessary to ensure that its Power architecture remains a contender. Intel’s chips are finding their way from PCs into larger computers, and even networking gear. The “open source” software strategy of promoting Linux helped IBM overtake Sun Microsystems in the market for large computers. Now, IBM hopes that an “open chip” strategy will help the Power microprocessor survive in an Intel-dominated world.

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.