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IBM's Power systems business is growing for the first time in years

James Niccolai | Jan. 22, 2016
A new strategy to embrace Linux and open up the platform is starting to pay off.

IBM's new S822LC Linux Power server
IBM's Power S822LC, part of a line of Linux based servers for cluster and cloud deployments. Credit: IBM

A few years ago, you wouldn't have bet much on IBM's Power systems having a bright future. The major Unix platforms have all been on the decline for more than a decade, giving way to Linux servers powered by increasingly capable x86 processors from Intel.

The jury is still out on Power, but there are signs that a bold push by IBM to revive the technology has started to pay off. Oracle's Sparc platform is also proving surprisingly resilient, raising a question about whether Hewlett-Packard should have killed its own proprietary Unix chip, PA-RISC, all those years ago.

IBM reported its financial results for the fourth quarter this week, and while overall sales continued their downward trajectory, the company reported the first growth for Power systems in four years.

The numbers aren't spectacular, but they're on the upswing. Last quarter, Power systems revenue climbed 4 percent from a year earlier, or 8 percent adjusted for the strong US dollar. On that basis, sales were up for all of 2015, too.

IBM doesn't release actual dollar figures for Power, only percentages. But it's clearly a turnaround from two years ago, when the business was tumbling more than 30 percent each quarter.

 IBM Power System S812LC 
The Power System S812LC, a Linux server for big data. Credit: IBM

A big part of the reason is Linux. Two years ago, IBM said it would invest a billion dollars to make it easier for clients to run Linux as an alternative to AIX, its proprietary Unix software. Its newest Power8 processor includes changes that make it easier for clients to port Linux applications from x86.

IBM also opened up the platform to third parties, a big change to its business model. Under the OpenPower initiative, other companies can now design and sell Power servers and processors under license from IBM. And IBM is adding more components to its systems from third parties like Nvidia and Mellanox.

Those moves have helped it to reposition Power for modern workloads like big data and cloud applications. It released a new line of low-cost Linux servers that customers can order online. Even Google was testing Power servers for its data centers, though it's unknown if it plans to use them.

Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight64, said customers want choice. "Everybody is looking for an alternative to Intel," he said.

ARM servers are taking longer than expected to gain traction, and right now Power seems like the only viable alternative, he said.

 

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