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Power processor brings IBM, Freescale together

Posted: 01 Sep 2006     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:IBM  Freescale  Power processor  architecture  Cisco Systems 

After going down separate paths for the past five years, Freescale Semiconductor Inc. and IBM Corp. are coming together again with a converged approach towards the Power processor architecture. The companies announced at the recent Freescale Technology Forum that they will share control of the architecture within the community, which Freescale joined early this year.

The July rollout included a common instruction set, a Linux reference platform, and a new logo and branding strategy. Carlos Gutierrez, a Freescale engineering manager who earlier directed Freescale's efforts within the Somerset Design Center, said Somerset—which included Apple Computer, Freescale and IBM—largely focused on the desktop market. After Somerset, Freescale concentrated on taking the PowerPC architecture into networking and into the automotive control market. IBM developed a high-end Power for its servers and the Blue Gene supercomputer, as well as PowerPC versions for videogames and networking ASICs.

“We went our own ways as the markets segmented. With the world going to an all-Internet Protocol [IP] network in front of us, we realised last year that we needed to come back together to drive a seamless architecture,” Gutierrez said.

IBM established the community in late 2004. Since then, 46 companies have joined, and an IBM implementation centre has been established in Shanghai, China. Today, the two companies are the only voting members on the committee that controls the architecture's direction, but smaller companies serve on advisory technical committees.

“None of the other major processor architectures is managed under such a governance system,” said Mike Sullivan, a marketing manager at IBM. “It's all about collaboration and reuse, giving our customers more choice. We want to build out our ecosystem, bringing in smaller players in a collaboration environment.”

“We need to set standards so code can be reused, with a common application binary interface so that developers can build systems in a seamless way,” Freescale's Gutierrez said.

Analysts said that Power—already being used in a breadth of applications—stands poised to take a larger role within the industry. Clay Ryder, president of the Sageza Group market research firm, said the closer collaboration between IBM and Freescale “will help them in their longer-term goal of getting the Power architecture used in many different types of chips and markets.”

Over the first half of this year, engineers from the two companies developed a jointly defined instruction set, revision 2.03, which preserves binary compatibility at the user level. The 2.03 revision merges past “extensions” developed within each company for specific markets. Existing processors will still be compatible with the 2.03 instruction set revision, said Gutierrez, and future cores can be implemented in ways that meet the needs of a particular market, such as the variable-length encoding needed to reduce the memory footprint on cost-sensitive automotive engine controllers. defines about 18 extensions, he said, some tightly focused on certain topics, such as how caches are locked. “The new architecture will allow a lot of flexibility to optimise a design point for performance, power and cost,” said Gutierrez.

IBM and Freescale are trying to ensure that Power “doesn't splinter as they gain multivendor support,” said Joe Byrne, a senior analyst at The Linley Group. “They want it to be flexible enough to bring in unique features, but still have it under their control, with chips and software that are truly compatible.”

Power is gaining ground at Cisco Systems, which increasingly relies on IBM for its ASICs, said Byrne. “If you poke around on Cisco's Web site, you will see that most of their new products are based on the Power architecture,” he said.

Most of the Power silicon sold worldwide comes from IBM and Freescale. Applied Micro Circuits Corp. has licensed low-end Power cores from IBM; PA Semi Inc. is developing a multiprocessor engine based on Power; and start-up Rapport Inc. is developing multiprocessing engines based on the Power architecture.

“The key thing to watch is how the Power architecture has become established in different markets,” said Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT. The Mayo Clinic, King noted, helped develop a compact CT scanner using Power chips.

- David Lammers
  EE Times

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