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IBM Power.org Opens Hardware

IBM says it is pleased with the better-than-expected results from its Power.org effort, which seeks to open some of the silicon hardware of the PowerPC processor to developers similar to how developer communities collaborate on software in the open-source world.

Pointing to growing membership, improvement and deployment of the Power technology, Big Blue claims Power.org is coming into its own, driving software and support for Power.

Analysts indicate it is too early to tell how successful, and how open, Power.org will be viewed in tech history, but the possibilities of both next generation and open hardware may be carried on from the Power efforts in the coming Cell processor.

Life of Its Own

IBM Power Everywhere Manager Dan Greenberg told LinuxInsider that Power.org and its growing roster of member companies, technical subcommittees and technology improvement to Power processors have gone beyond the company’s goals of 10 months ago, when Power.org was established.

“Another area is the heart of Power.org, to do the technical work, and we had an expectation of having a couple technical subcommittees getting going,” Greenberg said. “The number of technical subcommittees [we have now] is more than a couple. We’ve also seen significant activity and suggestions from other members for other technical subcommittees. We’re very happy Power.org is taking on a life of its own, which was the intention.”

Greenberg explained that there are basically two categories of Power.org subcommittees: (1) supcomputer-on-a-chip (SoC) chip technology groups, and (2) systems groups that work on chip technology such as design, bus architecture and other processor problems.

Open-Source Strategy

Greenberg also said a big part of the Power.org effort is making it easier and less expensive to design sophisticated SoC and related technology.

“We think we can take a crack at making this less expensive for folks,” he said. “We’re not sure, but that’s good. That’s the reason for Power.org … but we want to see that the proposal is well-structured.”

While Greenberg said the Power.org strategy draws on the open-source software community model of collaborative, open development, he noted that there are significant differences between hardware and software.

“When we started Power Everywhere, we took a great deal of inspiration from open-software communities, and how IBM has benefited very much from being in open communities,” he said. “Power.org really was inspired by that,” he added, referring to the Eclipse community, which was likewise initiated largely by IBM itself.

“At the same time, the hardware world and the software world are very different,” Greenberg said. “Economically and technically, you can’t do the same things. You don’t see people hacking together an SoC in their basement at night.”

Different Types of Tinkering

Gartner research Vice President Martin Reynolds also pointed out the differences between hardware and software development, indicating there is still value in the retention of intellectual property that is not shared in open development.

“There’s still an amount of proprietary value in Power,” he said, referring to some open hardware efforts that have been largely fruitless. “There are some [efforts], but it doesn’t go very far because they’re not useful, not as effective when you are better off licensing hardware,” Reynolds told LinuxInsider. “The key there is you’ve got a revenue stream. It shows that hardware development is more expensive. You can’t just tinker with it until it’s right.”

Reynolds, who questioned why Apple and PowerPC users are not a part of Power.org, said the effort is still in its early stages, and it is too soon too measure its success.

“They still have to prove themselves,” he said.

Cell Comes in Sight

Jim Trounson, a Power.org watcher and hopeful developer of the coming Cell processor — jointly developed by IBM, Sony and Toshiba — told LinuxInsider that, while Power.org encourages community and open development, it is not open-source hardware.

“Members seem to have some input into the evolution of standards,” he said. “The objective is to make sure that systems designed around Power can share operating system, tools and application software. Power.org provides open technology in the sense that there is enough info published to build a system from available chips. The intent is not to allow anyone to build those chips.”

While IBM is indicating a similar pattern for Cell as it has for Power, Trouson said, Big Blue and its partners should standardize for Cell systems if they want collaborative development around the new platform.

“I would like to see Sony, Toshiba and IBM cooperate to set standards for Cell systems,” he said.

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