IBM pumping more horsepower into Watson successors

IBM is pumping more horsepower into servers based on its Power architecture, which is best known for arming the Watson supercomputer to outperform humans in game show “Jeopardy.”

The company on Friday teased chip- and server-level upgrades for new Power servers that will start shipping in 2016. The servers will be faster than Watson and existing systems running on IBM’s current Power8 chips.

Power chips are now central to IBM’s server business after the sale of its x86 server business to Lenovo for US$2.1 billion. IBM hopes to speed up application performance with support for a faster bus and “advanced” memory, said Brad McCredie, vice president and fellow at IBM.

IBM is adopting Nvidia’s NVLink interconnect technology, which will enable faster data transfers inside servers. There’s an appetite for more bandwidth as computers get faster, and NVLink could resolve latency issues.

NVLink can provide five times more throughput than the PCI-Express pipes used in servers today, Nvidia has said. Programs will run faster with swifter data movement between processors, memory, storage and other components.

NVLink will eventually lead to a new Power chip that McCredie in jest termed “Power Next.” Nvidia also has plans to use the NVLink interconnect in its graphics processors, which could then be plugged into IBM’s upcoming servers. GPUs are considered faster for mathematical calculations and scientific analysis.

IBM will also work with top memory makers to bring new forms of memory into Power servers, McCredie said.

The company is working with partners to bring new technologies to Power chips and servers via the OpenPower Foundation, which has Samsung, Google, Tyan and Nvidia as members. The consortium came into existence in 2013 after IBM started licensing its Power architecture so third-party companies can develop chips, servers and components.

Google has already shown a prototype server based on Power chips, and server makers like Tyan are expected to come out with the first non-IBM Power servers. By pushing Power into more off-the-shelf servers, IBM wants to break the dominance of Intel’s x86 server chips. IBM is particularly targeting the China market, where server shipments are booming.

OpenPower is still a fledgling effort and the Power architecture will also have to contend with ARM, whose low-power processors designs are finally appearing in servers. But many data centers have already standardized around x86, so a change in architecture would require big software and infrastructure investments. IBM is trying to build a cohesive ecosystem that balances software and hardware development.

IBM has so far held control over the development of chips based on Power, but through OpenPower is also encouraging third parties to make derivative chips based on the architecture. Such chips are still far off, and could start appearing in 2016 or later, McCredie said.

In the meanwhile, IBM continues to develop servers based on Power8. The company introduced the two-socket Power S824L server, which is targeted at analytics, Web hosting and workloads. Nvidia’s GPUs can be attached to the server. The server will ship this month.

IBM also introduced new Power Enterprise Systems, which are eight-socket servers running the fastest Power8 chips. The servers are capable of running Linux and IBM’s Unix-based operating systems. IBM characterized the servers as being targeted at “mission critical” environments, in which high system uptime is considered paramount.

The company didn’t provide the pricing for the new servers.

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