In 2005, IBM plans to bring a significant feature from higher-end servers to the next generation of its PowerPC 970 processor line used in Apple Computer machines and Big Blue's own blade servers.
The next-generation chip will have technology that lets it run multiple operating systems simultaneously, said Karl Freund, vice president of IBM eServer pSeries. Doing so allows a computer to handle more jobs at the same time and to be used more efficiently.
The technology, called partitioning, relies on a concept called virtualization that breaks the hard link between an operating system and the underlying hardware. Partitioning is available today only on servers using IBM's higher-end Power4 and Power5 processors and in competing server designs from Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard and Intel.
"The goal is to make virtualization capability ubiquitous across the Power line," Freund said in a Tuesday interview. "We want to drive it down to lower price points and make it available on products like BladeCenter as well."
IBM is in the midst of a major, years-long effort to make its Power family of processors an alternative not just to high-end rivals from Sun and Intel but also to widely used x86 chips such as Intel's Pentium and Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron.
A key ally in the Power effort is Apple, which uses the PowerPC 970FX in its desktop and server computers. IBM also uses the chip in its thin JS20 blade servers. Big Blue also is rounding up other partners to promote and develop the Power family.
Servers using Power4 and Power5 chips require additional hardware called a management console to manage partitions, Freund said. With the next-generation PowerPC 970, IBM plans to run that hardware management console instead as software in a separate partition, he said.
Freund declined to comment on when in 2005 the chip is scheduled to arrive but said it's "pretty late in the design cycle now." Apple plans to use it, he added.
He also wouldn't comment on another possible feature of the coming chip: dual-processing cores. Most mainstream processors today have a single processing engine, but IBM's Power4 and Power5 employ two such engines on the same slice of silicon as a way to pack more processing power onto a single chip.
Sun and HP sell dual-core chips today; comparatively mainstream dual-core designs are coming from Intel and AMD in 2005. So it stands to reason that IBM will adopt the idea in its own PowerPC 970 line.
"Since IBM has been on the cutting edge of dual-core technology with its Power line, it would certainly be an embarrassment if companies like Intel and AMD were to deliver dual-core merchant market products in 2005 while IBM didn't," said Insight64 analyst Nathan Brookwood.
One constraint to adopting dual-core technology is ensuring that chips don't become too large to manufacture. But that likely won't hold IBM back, Brookwood said.
"The current 970FX is about 60 square millimeters, so a dual-core version would be 120 square millimeters, which would still be about as small as Intel's single-core design and a little bit larger than AMD's single-core design," Brookwood said.