IBM is to show off a prototype of its PowerPC 970 processor at the CeBIT trade show next month, the company said. The speedy chip, expected to arrive on the market in the second half of this year and reach 2.5GHz speeds in a future incarnation, will benefit certain types of servers, but also desktop systems -- with Apple a likely customer.
IBM is planning to demonstrate a blade server running on the PowerPC 970, a prototype from its development laboratory in Boblingen, Germany. The PowerPC 970 is targeted to the low-end server and desktop markets, but is derived from IBM's Power4 chip, used in higher-end servers.
Blades pack an entire server onto a single card, allowing for high densities of computing power with greater flexibility for administrators, but they require chips with low power consumption and heat output.
The company first revealed its plans for the chip at last October's Microprocessor Forum, and at the time said the chip would run up to 1.8GHz, suggesting that a manufacturing process upgrade would be necessary before higher clock speeds could be achieved.
IBM says a later PowerPC 970 will reach 2.5GHz using a 90-nanometre manufacturing process.
An IBM spokesman said the company would be showing PowerPC-based blades at a variety of clock speeds, but he cautioned that the products are prototypes, not announced products.
Even at the lower end of its range, 1.8GHz, the upcoming chip will run nearly twice as fast as IBM's quickest existing PowerPC chip, the 1GHz 750FX. It will also be able to handle both 32-bit software, the current standard on desktops, and 64-bit software, used on high-end servers.
Mind the performance gap
The new chip might prove a boon to Apple, which could use it to substantially narrow a growing performance gap with the Intel-based PC world -- Intel's chips already run at 3GHz. Sources familiar with IBM and Apple's plans said that Apple will be a customer for the PowerPC 970 next year, but Apple has declined to comment. The clock speed gap will continue to widen by the second half of the year, even if a 2.5GHz PowerPC chip does appear. But industry analysts have said that IBM's processor can comfortably compete with Pentium chips running at a higher clock speed because of the power and efficiency of the PowerPC architecture. Top-of-the-line PowerPC chips also appear to dissipate far less heat than top-end Pentium 4 processors, which would allow Apple more flexibility with how it builds its hardware -- a factor that has proven important to the company's products in the past. A 1.8GHz PowerPC 970 dissipates 42 watts, according to IBM's figures, compared to 68.4 watts for a 2.8GHz Pentium 4 and 30 watts for a 1GHz G4e chip from Motorola. The more heat a chip dissipates, the more space and equipment is required for cooling. The new chip will also give Apple an opportunity to move into the 64-bit world and expand its market. Computers with 32-bit chips can "address," or access, only a limited amount of memory. Chips with 64-bit addresses can access far more. In servers, this capability is already valuable, and a growing number of workstation users are demanding large amounts of memory. In a few years, enthusiast home users will be asking for greater amounts of memory. IBM will manufacture the PowerPC 970 in its newest chip plant, located in East Fishkill, New York, using its 130-nanometer (0.13 micron) silicon-on-insulator process. SOI allows IBM to boost clock speed and hold down power consumption by better insulating transistors. More blades to come
IBM has sold 5,000 blade servers since launching its BladeCenter product less than three months ago, and the computing giant plans to announce several new, more powerful models this year, including the PowerPC blades, and models with four Xeon processors. The company's blades fit within a 12.25-inch-tall enclosure. A total of 14 two-processor blades, each about 1.25 inches wide, fit into the cabinet, and the Power blades will be the same width. The four-processor blades will be twice that thickness. More technical details on the PowerPC 970 are available from IBM's Web site.