Power Architecture, Part 2: Drawing In Developers

Consumers are becoming more conversant with the use of the Linux operating system embedded in many of their products, such as auto accessories, remote controls and cell phones. An even bigger secret is the extensive use of Power Architecture to run most everything else consumers and gamers touch.

For instance, real-time imaging systems on board submarines, aircraft and spacecraft use Power. Power processors made by Freescale drive 50 percent of all automobile models worldwide. Even Cisco routers are built upon Power.

The first part of this two-part series looks at how Power Architecture proponents are attempting to build recognition. Part 2 focuses on drawing in developers to bring vitality to Power.

“Power is used to manage back-end corporate infrastructure, to serve applications and for grid computing. Insurance companies, banks and Wall Street use Power. Your every cell phone call at some point is processed by a Power Architecture blade,” said Kai Staats, CEO of Yellow Dog Linux developer Terra Soft and a cheerleader for Power.org, an association of hardware technology companies, software and individual developers of Power Architecture.

Broken Roots

The Power PC initiative started in 1991 when IBM developed the Power Architecture and Motorola (now Freescale) became the first licensee of the Power processor technology.

Apple, IBM and Freescale all were separate entities pursuing their own interests in developing hardware for the Power Architecture. When Apple left two years ago and converted its PowerPC computer line to an Intel box, the most visible proponent of Power Architecture left a void.

In an effort to pick up the pieces and push for more Power Architecture development, IBM rallied with Freescale to form Power.org in December of 2004.

“Power.org only was focused on the hardware side,” said Ross Dickson, principal technical specialist for Virtutech, an embedded systems software developer.

It has taken the fledgling organization until now to recognize that mutual aid between hardware and software developers can cement the divergent elements of the Power industry.

Moving Forward

To that end, Power.org hosted a first-of-its-kind Software Summit in Austin, Texas, on April 19. The summit focused on identifying solutions to the challenges associated with software development on Power Architecture.

“All of a sudden now people no longer see only Freescale and IBM. Choices are expanding,” said Glenn Beck, industrial and storage market segment manager for the networking and computing systems Group for Freescale.

This is the first major effort to establish a central organization. The Software Summit actually laid the foundation for a more rigorous meeting of the Power industry in the fall.

Power.org will host the first-ever Power Architecture Developer Conference Sept. 24-25 in Austin. The conference will provide in-depth technical training, the latest technology innovations, ground-breaking demonstrations, and practical design information.

Desktop Lacking

Two of the biggest concerns expressed at the Software Summit about the continued growth of Power Architecture is the lack of a desktop product and the lack of a unified ecosystem, according to Terra Soft’s Staats.

Another issue that may carry over to the Developer Conference is the concern over software access to the Power hardware. Staats presented a key address on “The Business Case For Software on Power” at the Software Summit.

Staats is also founder of the HPC Consortium. The Consortium provides access to high-performance Linux OS systems with an immediate focus on the Cell Broadband Engine found in the IBM and Mercury Cell products, and the Cell processor found in the Sony PlayStation 3.

Software sells hardware, and without hardware the customer base is limited, Staats told attendees at the Software Summit. Without a strong customer base, the software is not ported, which puts developers back at the beginning again.

While IBM dominates HPC and Freescale owns much of the embedded market, the middle desktop is missing, Staats explained. Power Architecture continues to thrive without the desktop space, but the desktop does, in fact, unify an ecosystem and provide a consumer face, a means by which humans interact directly with the architecture.

“This is what drove ‘Intel Inside.’ It is time for the world to recognize Power,” Staats said.

Driving Conditions

In the HPC space, both 32- and 64-bit performance is a key factor in driving the development of Power Architecture, Staats said. The p Series and Cell hardware from IBM is phenomenal, outperforming x86 and x86-64 in many benchmark comparisons.

IBM’s Power Architecture dominates the gaming market with Sony’s PS3, Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Nintendo’s Wii. Power is also king in the embedded space, where ready recognition of Power is an incredibly diverse arena, according to Staats.

“This is about performance per watt and the proliferation of the 32-bit AltiVec vector processor,” he said.

Software Vendors Wanted

One reason software developers have not shown much interest in coding for Power hardware is the dominance of embedded programming, according to Hollis Blanchard, a Linux kernel developer for IBM.

“Embedded developers are using x86 processors and the Windows OS, so they don’t care about the Power PC,” he said. “But it helps the overall development process to run the same binaries on all platforms.”

Blanchard agrees with Staats on the need for more opportunities for software writers. The Power Architecture is a hardware platform that can run a variety of operating systems, including Linux, said Blanchard. That highlights a major task facing Power.org, he suggested.

“We are still looking at pain points. We still have to consider dialogue with software developers to make sure we meet the community’s needs,” reasoned Blanchard.

Software Connection

That is precisely what Nina Wilna, software architect for Power.org and IBM, is committed to doing. She is the leader of the Software Summit Group.

“A lot of software people are responding in detail to our survey. It shows strong interest,” Wilna said.

Participation among software developers at the Summit was very strong, both in person and via the Web, she added.

One of her goals is to use open source projects to engage the software community and to form a technical committee to oversee the development of standards. The results, she hopes, will produce a clarity on what software developers say is a gap in the ecosystem.

“The Power community is fairly complex with Linux and embedded intertwined,” she said.

Power Brand

The Power platform will end its growing pains and be a thriving influence in the industry in the next few years, assured Staats.

“With Power.org’s efforts coming to fruition, I believe Power will soon regain its deserved recognition as a dominant player in HPC, desktop and embedded,” he said. “It thrives in two of these areas now. Only the lack of brand recognition, the ‘Power Inside’ face value, is missing.”

Power Architecture, Part 1: Creating an Image

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