OpenPower ahead of Qualcomm in bid for Google’s server favors

Shortly after Qualcommm launched its first system-on-chip targeted at servers, there was high excitement over reports that Google was going to endorse the architecture. But this week the search giant said it has built software which allows it to switch easily between Intel and other platforms – and singled out an IBM OpenPower design rather than one from Qualcomm or other ARM-based players.

That is not to say that Google is not testing the Qualcomm offering. No company which buys as many processors as Google (or Facebook or Microsoft) can afford to limit its supplier choices and the cloud giants take an interest in almost any second source to Intel, even investing in their own inhouse design projects. But the public appearance at this week’s OpenPower Summit suggests that IBM’s offering is now in pole position to be Google’s second string to x86. Though Google is not using it commercially yet, it has several applications which can run on OpenPower, and a dedicated team of engineers, engineering manager Maire Mahony told the conference.

Google also said it was developing a cloud server in partnership with Rackspace Hosting, also using the IBM Power9 OpenPower chip, and would donate this to Facebook’s Open Compute Project, which aims to offer standard and commoditized hardware designs to enable all companies to deploy processing capacity more cheaply.

So far, Intel is hanging on to its 99% share of the server processor market, its chief source of profit. OpenPower and ARM alternatives are mainly confined to trials or to fairly niche, low power designs. But the need to build out huge cloud capacity at low cost and power consumption is making it more and more attractive to adopt platforms with multiple vendors.

Google has not switched to new designs yet, but it has designed its software in such a way that it could make that leap at any time now, according to Gordon MacKean, senior director of infrastructure at the company. Every line of code is tested to ensure it can run on x86, ARM or OpenPower, though the OpenPower effort is more advanced than the ARM version. He said in an interview with Bloomberg: “It’s going to be a performance-per-dollar decision that drives us to make a fundamental switch.”

Meanwhile Intel said, through the noise of gritted teeth: “We continue to be great partners and work closely with both Google and Rackspace to ensure Intel is best for their workloads. But we also recognize it’s a competitive industry and understand the need for ongoing experimentation.”

The OpenPower Foundation was formed in 2013 by IBM, Google, Nvidia and Samsung. Shortly afterwards, Google showed off a Power server board it had developed for testing. The company wrote in a blog post: “It won’t surprise anyone to hear that demand for compute at Google has been relentless, and it isn’t slowing down any time soon.” That means its data centers have to handle ISA heterogeneity (the ability to support multiple instruction set architectures) – a major cultural shift for a firm which has adopted homogeneous platforms to keep costs down.