IBM's name is seen synomynous with hardware business. Its hard to believe that IBM can be only software development company. There are numerous software companies already being there. IBM stands out from crowd because of their hardware experience.
If EDRAM is so good, and IBM is talking about selling it to someone, doesn't it give IBM levearge to ask for specific conditions , for example an ability to purchase wafers using EDRAM at a reasonable price ?
And if that's the case, it's most likely a secret from us and company employees ,as common in negotioatios.
And if the tech is so great , why wouldn't global foundries use it ?
Embedded DRAM (I prefer eDRAM as an abbreviation since EDRAM was previously used for Enhanced DRAM) has significant density advantages, but involves significant addition manufacturing cost. This is somewhat like incorporating flash memory into a computation-oriented chip—it adds cost and may have delayed availability or delay the roll out of a new process—, but incorporating flash can more easily reduce system cost for small systems by removing the need for external persistent storage.
If an eDRAM-capable process is available sufficiently later at sufficiently higher cost, it can be attractive to use a smaller ordinary process and use SRAM since the smaller process will shrink and increase performance/energy-efficiency of the logic and make SRAM density more comparable to eDRAM in the older process.
eDRAM is most useful when bandwidth or latency demands integration but the desired capacity would be too great for practical integration if SRAM was used. (eDRAM also has some error resiliance advantage over SRAM.) This makes it great for huge L3 caches integrated into the processor chip (or even just in the same multichip module as the processor chip). It could also be useful as a high bandwidth memory for a GPU.
The lack of great success of Mosys' 1T SRAM (higher performance DRAM abstracted behind an SRAM interface) hints that the market for a memory with its capacity advantage is not especially large. (I seem to recall it was used by HP for a PA-RISC processor's off-chip cache.)
For a foundry eDRAM seems to be something of a niche feature (more so than support for integrated flash memory). Without IBM's server demand for such, the market may not be able to support the extra costs. Process development is already expensive and risky, so Global Foundry's rejecting the extra cost and risk for such a niche feature is understandable.
(I also seem to recall that IBM's eDRAM techology was linked with SOI. SOI also adds cost and seems to be less popular among foundry users.)
A technology can be theoretically very useful ("great") without being very profitable.
By the way, IBM's POWER7 exploited the presence of trench capacitors to provide better power regulation. This additional advantage might expand the niche slightly but only slightly.
Qualcomm, Oracle, Apple, Digital Equipment and others have all shown that competitive processors can be built in foundries. The real issue is the cost of IBM retaining its own fabs/process vs. the cost of foundry services. As zSeries and pSeries sales have fallen, and the game business was lost, the cost of IBM maintaining its own fabs has become untenable, and transition to future technology nodes unaffordable.
This article is written as if the design space is very limited. Since IBM is in the system business, there are many design options to achieve overall system cost, reliability and performance. For example, rather than foundry-supplied eDRAM, it might be more cost effective to use RAM on a silicon interposer or RAM attached to the processor chip with TSVs.
1. For a really competitive CPU, epecially in the server space you need you own fab. Qualcomm, Apple et al are commodity parts and do not really need to fine tune processes. And henec are not valid examples. Oracle is suffering with power issues partly becuase it does not have optimal silicon processes. Intel inspite of a bad server arch. (till recently) partly suceeded because it owns the fab.
2. Having dealt with most fab vendors including IBM since the late 90s. Currently for our processors we use TSMC, UMC and possibly ST for FD-SOI. I can safely say that IBM's problems arose solely due to the way they marketed their fab and Power parts. Even today, every large RDBMS installation in India, uses Power 7+/8. There is a reason for this. Most RDBMs need both threaded and single core performance (as Oracle found out with the T series ) and IBM probably is the best at this. This has a direct bearing on licensing costs which can shoot up 50% with an x86 part.
IBM's mistake was two fold, one of which has been corrected. The first was not to agressively go after Intel in the processor market. They would have easily got 2-40% of the market. Even now if they go commodity with Power 8 they should get a good chunk of the market. Commodity means selling on Newegg. They need to get over their obsession with high margins. Let us hope the Open power strategy is not too late. The market needs an alternative to x86 and Power is technically the preferable alternative. ARM will not count till 2017/8.
The second was not pricing Power systems reasonably but at least now Power boxes with RH have price parity.
3. It amuses me that folks have such religious attitudes towards vertical integration. There is nothing wrong with a vertically integrated IDM. All you need to make sure is that you use up your capacity and your parts are priced right. This is very much a cultural thing. Vertical integration went out of favor in the West after the collapse of the likes of ITT. But Asian business models do not necessarily subsribe to the mantra. In these hyper-competitive times, every piece of differentiation counts. IBM's incompetence in monetising a fab should not be considered as a morality story on the non-viability of the IDM model. Such generalizations belong to case studies at Harvard and have no place in the informed discussion forums of EE Times !
4. On a more technical note, the eDRAM in a Power 8 makes all the difference in the world. Code an RDBMS engine and you will never go to a processor with low levels of L3/L4 cache. If buffer caches could speak, they would agree with me ! Granted there are other ways to get a large L4 cache, say via TSVs but it does not work for L3. In a large core count HPC/server processor, a segmented L3 is key to performance and it has to be on-die. Given the capacities needed for server app caches, eDRAM is the only way to go. I cannot stress this enough, pipeline and TLB flushes are catastrophic in high perf. low latency server SW.
See my point 2. I deal with large banks and deal sizes in the 100-200 M USD. In the core server category, most RFPs specifically blacklist x86 processors. I think this will change with Broadwell and more RAS features but points to the fact that IBM blew it purely on Marketing. In all these deals, the app and webs servers are invariably x86 boxes becuase the hassles of dealing with IBM. If IBM makes owning a Power box easy, a lot of my enterprise deals would have gone the IBM way.
5. ARM is coming along well but they still does not have a high end server arch. in place. They will get there for sure, I keep running into ARM folks in some of my Working Groups so they are going in the right direction. But I think it will be 3-5 years before they are taken seriously.
Very interesting original post and comments section.
* In my opinion, IBM's value is in its ability to control and optimize the hardware AND software elements. The ROI on the POWER architecture should be judged on the systems and software sales this underlying architecture delivers. I think the decision IBM took to not take on x86 in the general server market was the right path. Therefore (and you could argue I am a hardware guy and am thereofre biased!) a shift to software only is a dangerous path. I view those solutions as less "sticky" - opens IBM up to more competition
* I don't believe it is mandatory to own a fab to build compelling high end server products...However, if you don't have your own fab, you certainly need to be a large and influential enough company to get your custom process tweaks implemented that make your particular solution shine
1. I beg to disagree there. IBM/Motorola had a good customer in Apple (it was part of AIM, so technically a partner). It was Motorola's reluctance to keep up with Apple's needs that made Apple go to Intel. I have been a PPC customer from day one (still am, use the T4240 these days), so had a chance to see what was going wrong from day one. They simply did not have the energy to match Intel. Sheer lethargy and misplaced priorities. Or rather lack of priorities. If they had targetted Intel with a laser focus, they would have been a co-leader in the higher end processor market. I used to have these conversations with IBM and Motorola during thsi downfall, so had a ring side seat ! They just gave up.
As I mentioned, even today my customer base is 100% Power 7+. Nobody wants to touch a Xeon even when the Intel server is 50% the price of IBM.
Having worked with both IBM and Intel since the late 80s, it simply boils down to this. Intel simply wants to suceed more.
Even now, for a standard business server, the Freescale T4240 is a more optimal part than a Xeon. Freescale knows it but will not push it into that market.
For 65W TDP (normal 30-40W) I get 6 core Xeon level performance at half the TDP and with a 48 Gbit routing capacity on top of that. What is not to like.
Bottom line, IBM and Motorola simply did not have the stomach for a fight against Intel, inspite of having a better processor architecture and fab technology to match Intel. Such examples abound, TI and FS giving up baseband market to Qualcomm and Mediatek is a classic one. What is that scares western companies about low margin business ? As long as cash flow is OK, they are great businesses. The minimal profits itself a great entry barrier. My dad floated a company and took it IPO back in the 80s. The business, jeans ! Reduced Levi's in India to near oblivion in a span of 3 years and became the No 2 player in the market. I am just citing it as an example that just becuase you have powerful incumbents in a commodity market is no reason to walk away.
2. I meant to do a good CPU it helps if you have fab. There is a difference between the getting a custom process done for you and having a colleauge as the process engineer ! The incremental advantage is subtle but it adds up.
3. SW is a dangerous game to play. Power boxes sell now only if IBM uses RedHat. Nobody wants AIX even though it is a better choice as of now. So there goes the SW advantage at the OS level. And once RH Linux comes in, Jboss comes in ! Slowly your so called SW margins take a hit. All you will left with is selling Watson. Since I advise a lot of large companies, the IBM sales team makes regular pilgrimages to my offie. Keep telling them this but I think it falls on deaf years.
In short, IBM is losing its so called SW advantage, they have yet to realize it.
There's a general problem with comanies:The stock market punishes them in long term projects. Attacking intel would be such project. Why behave in such manner ? Because stock investors basically look for short term gains. Invest in long term projects - and you decrease your appeal.  is a nice explanation of this.
That's why you get companies today hoarding cash , in a world so filled with technological opportunies.
Even when threre is no investment involved, IBM is without a clue ! I run the India Processor program and about a year ago we selected PPC as our reference ISA. But could not get IBM to respond on licensing the ISA. This was a big deal since all strategic and govt. funded program would shift to this ISA from commodity ARM and Intel. You are talking 5B USD + market. And to top it, IBM is providing tech. assistance on a fab coming up in India. One would have thought they would respond with some urgency, but no dice ! They did get back to me on selling Power boxes ...
Finally I gave up and switched to the Berekely RISC-V ISA. We will hopefully release FPGA versions by Christmas. IBM's loss.
MBA saleswomen Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman ruined the once great hardware company HP. Now Rometty with experience mostly in sales is shutting down Hardware mfg at IBM. The US has had to pay a heavy price for women's equality ! Engineers and hardware guys have the handicap that they need capital to do most anything significant so these airhead MBAs in pantsuits sent by Wall St. can boss over them.
While it's no substantial change for microelectronics, IBM is signaling fairly clearly that it's never going to invest in any new opportunity in hardware because of the commodity disaster that is the cloud.
I feel for this IBM employee that sees good technologies with opportunities to continue differentiation from competitors, but the sad truth is that when the buck stops at the C-level, IBM will never spend money they could use to buyback shares to invest in opportunities that might perhaps someday grow their hardware businesses. Not organically, and not through acquisition. Not unless something radically changes at the top levels of management.
You might look at GE reinvesting in being a maker of tangible things and think it could happen to IBM, too. But there's no bellweather moment for IBM like GE Capital pulling the whole conglomerate down like an anchor. IBM will continue to act like the share price is the company and all its worth, and continue to view any investment in its hardware business as detrimental. For the sake of the employees, it is hard not to hope they sell microelectronics entire.
One cannot be in the electronics industry for long without being aware of the contributions of IBM, and admiring the transitions they have made over the years.
For this topic, IBM invested in custom development (fabs, design, eda) at a time when literally these markets did not exist externally. In the meantime, the world has significantly changed, and it is not clear whether these custom techniques in fact provide significant competitive differentiation for their server class products. Plenty of companies (HP, EMC, etc) seem to find a way to build compelling products without these investments.
Like any large organization, I expect it is difficult to change gears, but I suspect there is little choice. Inspired leadership would figure out how to utilize the talented individuals within these organizations in a more productive manner. At least, that is the hope.