IBM Power6Yesterday, IBM officially announced its Power6 chip, touting that the next-generation microprocessor for its UNIX and Linux systems offers double the performance of the earlier Power5+ processor while consuming roughly the same amount of electricity. At a time when major chipmakers are focused on using multiple cores with parallel processing (instead of ramping up clock speed) to boost processor performance, IBM’s dual-core, 4.7GHz processor leverages both approaches to boost performance with no apparent increase in power consumption. Incidentally, Big Blue was also the first to introduce mainstream dual-core chips to market, months ahead of Intel and AMD.

“IBM came up with a process to alter how silicon behaves by placing a layer of insulator underneath a layer of silicon less than 500 atoms thick”, said Bernard Meyerson, chief technologist of IBM’s technology group. “You literally can squeeze silicon, and thereby give it properties to make it faster. The thing that is making it run faster is not just that it’s smaller but because you’re changing its basic physical properties,” Meyerson told Reuters in an interview.

Read this early interview with Brad McCredie, Power6’s chief architect, conducted by Stephen Shankland of CNET

Developed on the advanced 65-nanometer process, the various features of the chip include:

  • New virtualization technologies to reduce power consumption while keeping performance up
  • The first processor capable of doing decimal floating-point arithmetic in its hardware rather than in its software
  • Two cores that use symmetric multithreading (SMT) technology, which allows them to appear as four cores
  • Each core has 4MB of high-speed, level-two cache memory to itself, compared with a 2MB shared cache in Power5
  • “CPU hot spare,” which enables the entire state of the processor to be moved to a new processor core
  • Dynamic adjustment of processor frequency and voltage – lowering both when possible to cut power

IBM’s latest offering is in line with its initiative to double energy efficiency ($1 billion per year under a program called “Project Big Green”), first in its own data centers and then in the data centers of its customers.

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IBM thus locks horns with Sun Microsystems and HP in the UNIX servers arena as well as competing with Intel and AMD’s high-end x86 processors, which are increasingly capable of handling high-demand applications.

Will the Power6 instigate the next Gigahertz war? Join the discussion.