The Open Power Consortium could become IBM's last stand in microprocessors with huge implications for the future of Big Blue.
Years ago, IBM took a shot at the mainstream PC market when it forged its PowerPC alliance with Motorola. Intel won, and the partners retrenched into the embedded market with the Power.org consortium. These days, their embedded partners -- LSI, Freescale, and others -- are all shifting to ARM cores.
After a last foray trying to gain traction in China, Power.org appears to be quietly withering away.
Exacerbating IBM's woes, the company appears to have been designed out of at least two of the three next-generation game consoles where it once provided its Cell multicore processor, ASIC technology, and other goodies. Microsoft's Xbox One and Sony's Playstation 4 both use AMD's cores. The muscular, custom console processors once were significant drivers of process technology and profits for Big Blue.
Now IBM is left to defend its main stronghold, the high-end server. This, too, is under siege.
These days the massive scale-out datacenters of web giants such as Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft are increasingly driving server technology and volumes. The x86 rules here along with an emerging streamlined style of design that's in opposition to the muscular scale-up style IBM practices for its classic customers in banking, government, and scientific markets.
Even in the Top 500 Supercomputers, IBM's old turf, it is losing ground to scale out designs using Nvidia GPUs paired with racks of x86 systems. Now Intel is coming on strong here with its own multicore Xeon Phi, which some say is offering higher performance, lower cost, and easier development than Nvidia GPUs.
In the coldest cut of all, Amazon recently won a deal to supply computer services to the CIA, encroaching on the business of IBM's federal systems division, the bluest of Big Blue business units. Like everyone else, the government is under pressure to try out cloud computing services such as Amazon to reduce cost.
The trend lines just don't look good for IBM. One bright spot is it managed to convince Google to join Open Power. Just what Google plans to build with Power chips is unclear.
It's not game over by any means. IBM is expected to announce more Open Power partners before the end of the year. That said, this group needs to deliver significant new makers of Power servers to give the architecture a broad enough base of supporters to keep it viable long term.
Nothing ever goes away in electronics. Big banks and government labs will be using IBM mainframes and servers for many years.
But if the economics of Power turn further south, IBM's management will be left with some hard choices. They will have to make their decisions at a time when the return on investment in making semiconductors of any kind is increasingly grim as we approach the last few nodes of CMOS scaling.
IBM makes its money on software and services, but those products are tied to its Power and proprietary mainframe hardware. If the chips and boxes become unsustainable, IBM could implode into a much smaller IT company that services a diminishing set of very high-end accounts.
Big Blue has come back from the brink a couple times before. I can't predict the future, but I think it will take more than Open Power to shift its fortunes this time.