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IBM and Altera Develop FPGA POWER8 Platform for Cloud and Data Analytics Applications

November 20, 2014

IBM has always been the forerunner when it comes to supercomputing and that may very well work in the company’s favor as they take on Intel in the server processing wars. Both companies have been making a slew of announcements centered on creating faster, smaller and more efficient processors that will ultimately power cloud infrastructure.

The latest announcement has IBM teaming with Altera Corporation on the first FPGA-based acceleration platform, which connects an FPGA to a POWER8 CPU using IBM’s Coherent Accelerator Processor Interface (CAPI). What this adds up to is improved system performance for cloud and data center applications like data compression, encryption, image processing and search. This is achieved through shared virtual memory between the FPGA and the processor, which makes the FPGA act as just another core on the POWER8.

This synergy is achieved thanks to the OpenPOWER Foundation, which has the goal of building open and collaborative server, networking and other technologies to power hyperscale and cloud data centers. The organization counts IBM, Altera, Google and Samsung among its members. By making the FPGA act as another core on IBM’s processor, everything is simplified and reduced, from development of software code to processor cycles. The companies purport the new platform will ultimately enable system architects to cut their data center footprints in half.

"Our work with the OpenPOWER Foundation has enabled us to deliver highly flexible heterogeneous compute platforms that target POWER-based systems," said David Gamba, senior director of the computer and storage business unit at Altera. "Altera is at the forefront of supplying POWER users reconfigurable hardware accelerators based on CAPI that are supported with an OpenCL programming model. The result is highly optimized accelerators that deliver optimal FLOPs/Watt/dollar."

Efficiency, cost, speed and size are critical components in the cloud processing wars, and Intel has maintained the upper hand against IBM so far. Their recent announcement of a custom Xeon processor for AWS was a huge coup, but IBM has always touted the POWER processors’ open design as superior to Intel’s proprietary x86 architecture for cloud-specific tasks like data analytics. The OpenPOWER initiative certainly has some industry weight behind it, and IBM’s new platform with Altera pretty much takes on x86 directly.

IBM and Altera have amassed a number of POWER8 systems with FPGAs and have also partnered with Nallatech on an OpenPOWER CAPI Development Kit for POWER8 using the board manufacturer’s FPGA-based 385 card. The companies have also developed an IBM Data Engine for NoSQL that enables one POWER8 server to be used for deploying NoSQL data stores in place of 24 x86 servers. And they have developed an IBM Data Engine for Analytics, which features integrated software for big data and analytics workloads.

Edited by Maurice Nagle

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