OpenPower Consortium: A Trip Down Memory Lane

IBM announced today that it was working with Google and Nvidia in an alliance called the OpenPower Consortium to promote the use of IBM’s Power processor as an alternative to x86 CPU’s from Intel and AMD. Power, a descendant of the PowerPC chips that were the heart of Apple’s Macintosh computers until the 2005 switch to Intel, currently are used primarily in IBM’s midrange line of servers, a business that has been shrinking of late.

Ian Betteridge tweetA tweet from Ian Betteridge tweaked my memory and reminded me that this looks a lot like a road we have traveled before. Back in the mid-90s when the PowerPC was young, Apple, IBM, and Motorola–the companies behind the chip–came up with something called the Common Hardware Reference Platform.

The idea behind CHRP was a hardware design independent of the software that would run on it. So an IBM CHRP machine could run the UNIX-like AIX (the original version of AIX was a lot further from stock UNIX than what eventually evolved.) Motorola’s system could run Windows NT for PowerPC. And Apple could use Mac OS.

Not much ever came of the scheme. Apple incorporate CHRP-like elements into its Power Macs, but to the best of my knowledge, it never built a CHRP-compliant Macintosh. Motorola, at the time a licensed maker of Mac clones, developed a system called the StarMax 6000. I saw it once, perhaps at Comdex, dual-booting Mac OS and Windows NT. This was very cool, but whatever commercial possibility it had disappeared when Apple abruptly discontinued the Mac OS licensing program before it shipped. The only significant product to come out of the experiment was a version of the IBM RS/6000, a precursor of IBM’s very successful p-series server line.

I wish IBM better luck with the new venture. The support of Nvidia and Google is impressive, especially the latter with its thousands and thousands of x86-based servers. But making a dent in x86 while at the same time holding off a new challenge from ARM servers is a very tall order.

Disclosure: My son for some years developed system software for the p-series servers. He’s still with IBM, but working on an unrelated project.



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Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.

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