IBM's Power-ful open source gift: China wins big, and these are the losers

It's a heck of an announcement by Big Blue, and this is a heck of a list.

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At the Linux Foundation's Open Source Summit in San Diego, IBM announced it would open-source key technologies in its Power processor. The Armonk, N.Y.-based technology giant also revealed it would open-source reference designs for the Open Coherent Accelerator Processor Interface and Open Memory Interface, which the company described as architecture-agnostic technologies to maximize memory bandwidth between processors and attached devices to prevent bottlenecks.

As part of this effort, the OpenPower Foundation, formerly known as the OpenPower Consortium and founded by IBM in 2013 with Google, Mellanox, Nvidia, and Tyan, will now be run under the umbrella of the Linux Foundation. 

Why is this significant?

For starters, Power architecture is a highly versatile, high-performance microprocessor systems architecture that scales from embedded systems to the most powerful supercomputers -- such as the IBM Watson-based expert system that wiped the floor with Ken Jennings in 2011. It's the basis for IBM's System Z and Power 9 big iron, but it also has been used in the past in set-top devices like the Xbox 360, the Nintendo Wii, and the PlayStation 3. In previous decades, it even has been hardened for vertical markets like automotive, medical equipment, and military/aerospace.

All this intellectual property for creating reference designs, which includes the patents themselves, is going to be royalty-free. Linux already runs on Power, as do many other real-time operating systems (RTOS) for embedded systems development. The Power platform is tailor-made for IoT, network and wireless, industrial and environmental control systems, personal computing, enterprise servers, and handhelds and mobile. 

Who wins and who loses? 

On the heels of this announcement, here's the breakdown.

Winners

  • IBM: Its software, services, and cloud run on all this stuff to compete with AWS, Azure, and Google. There's a sizable future revenue stream for Red Hat to do all this, as it is the key SME in the entire IBM Power ecosystem.
  • Chinese companies: Notably Huawei benefits because it can now build 5G infrastructure, network switches, and IoT components using Power architecture. And, potentially, smartphone and tablet processors -- with considerable additional investment (likely in the billions) to manage clock speed, energy consumption, and thermal management. But to say that this could solve Huawei's main 5G component supply chain problem is a huge understatement.
  • Everyone that makes an IoT device: They now have a better choice than ARM or Intel. Microsoft Xbox could become PowerPC again -- so could PlayStation and everyone making Wi-Fi routers, residential gateways, Alexa smart speakers, smart anything, etc. In other words, everything that is "made in China."
  • Apple: This could very well end up becoming the ghost in the machine, the return of Steve Jobs' Power Mac after over a decade in mothballs. It could usher in a new generation of Power iPads, Power Watch, and Apple-branded Power VR/AR devices. Apple gets to completely throw Intel and ARM out in terms of required licensing and could own all its DNA again. It would need to put in the same level of effort as Huawei to build Power-based mobile SoCs -- potentially billions -- but it might've already had a headstart, with the IBM alliance started by Tim Cook and Ginni Rometty years ago. Wouldn't it be a heck of a plot reveal if it turned out Apple was planning on doing this for years?
  • Every hyper-scale cloud vendor in existence: Azure, AWS, and Google could mint Power chips with fabrication partners like TSMC, Samsung Micro, GlobalFoundries, etc. Heavy containerized and open-source workloads would no longer require Intel compatibility. In turn, this would put pressure on other cloud vendors, which do not have access to these chips, and it'd eventually drive down the costs of cloud computing tremendously due to the natural architectural and energy efficiencies of Power.
  • Microsoft: While it would seem that disruption of x86 damages its Windows/Wintel dominance, Microsoft has been pivoting for years toward being primarily a cloud vendor and application developer, and it has been pioneering ARM and non-Intel in its Surface hardware for a while, too. Power Surfaces are a no-brainer: The Windows NT kernel originally ran on PowerPC (and several other systems architectures that include DEC Alpha, Itanium, and MIPS) in 1992 because of the way it was designed using a Hardware Abstraction Layer (HAL). Microsoft discontinued Windows NT support for PowerPC in 1997, but it could bring it out of mothballs. The "Modern" Windows 10 application architecture is also not dependent on Win32, which is getting legacy components replaced with new ones in every release.
  • Russia and all the US's enemies: With open-source supercomputing technology like Power, any country that presents a national security risk to the US potentially now has access to the kind of microprocessor tech that powers the most important systems at the Department of Defense and the NSA. They only need companies like Huawei and others with fab capability willing to sell it to them.

Losers

  • Intel: The x86 has been floundering for close to a decade. It has already lost significant relevance in the cloud because born-in-the-cloud workloads are not tied to the architecture anymore; they are highly containerized, service-oriented, and make heavy use of open-source tool-sets, which includes Linux. ARM was well on its way to displacing it; now everyone has a free supercomputing-class systems architecture to play with instead.
  • Qualcomm: The company has the leading chipset for 5G and carrier equipment, as well as Wi-Fi and is the No. 1 supplier of smartphone chips. Its Snapdragon SoC powers the Samsung Galaxy phones in the US, the Google Pixel, and just about every other Android phone that isn't made by Huawei. Even Huawei was dependent on them, potentially having that critical component supply line disrupted by the Trump Administration due to our current trade war. In addition to smartphone chips, with Power, Huawei can develop its own network processors, although some other IP would need to be developed to fill the gaps that Qualcomm has patents for (such as CDMA), if it wanted to participate in markets that Qualcomm has legal protection in (like the US and countries it has treaties with).
  • ARM: The leading embedded processor architecture is ripe for disruption. It has license fees associated with it, as it is a fabless company that only makes money off licensing basic processor designs to companies like Apple, Qualcomm, Samsung, and Huawei. An open-source, patent royalty-free OpenPower potentially kills the golden goose.
  • AMD: While not as tied as much to x86 as Intel is, it is still a major potential blow to AMD's future business. But, as it has done to some extent with ARM and other architectures, AMD can pivot to being a contract manufacturer of OpenPower-based chips and even design its own for sale in multiple market segments, from embedded/networking to enterprise and mobile.
  • Samsung: Its Exynos ARM-based chipset is hardly a big mover in the North American market, as it uses (and manufactured) Qualcomm's Snapdragon for its smartphones, but its Galaxy phones use it in the rest of the world. As with AMD, Samsung is one of the world's largest contract manufacturers of semiconductors and can pivot toward making Power-based chips for Apple and anyone else that wants them. But that means it will have to compete with firms like Globalfoundries (which has a leg up on Power and is IBM's fab) and Taiwanese and Chinese companies like TSMC, Foxconn, and Huawei.
  • RISC-V: This open-source alternative to ARM already has had a problematic headstart. But with broad industry backing for OpenPower, you can pretty much kiss it goodbye.
  • The Trump Administration: Try as it might in preventing companies from using royalty-free open source technology, it cannot. No "entity list" or a presidential tweet can stop open-source, soybean exports, be damned. The export controls on Qualcomm and other companies with critical tech that Chinese companies like Huawei and ZTE have been denied in the past will not affect any of this should Chinese companies -- and those in other nations -- decide to manufacture components using all these technologies IBM is open-sourcing.

It's a heck of an announcement by Big Blue, and this is a heck of a list with a lot of ramifications for the industry. It may take years for all this to shake itself out, and not all the players here with the potential to take advantage of this gift may jump on OpenPower. But it is undoubtedly enough to displace or severely disrupt the empires of some companies on the list.

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