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IBM's Power7 chip going into Opteron motherboards

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Exclusive AMD has secured yet another major partner win thanks to Opteron. Starting with the Power7 processor, IBM will give up on making its own Unix/RISC box motherboards. Instead, it will plug the Power chips directly into slightly modified Opteron boards in an effort to save money.

Neither IBM nor AMD would comment for this story. Multiple sources, however, did confirm the move in interviews with The Register. IBM and AMD have already signed an agreement around the arrangement.

Our sources have also revealed that Sun Microsystems is in discussions with AMD to pursue a similar plan for its UltraSPARC and UltraSPARC T1 processors.

"We are excited about AMD's common socket initiative because it opens up a whole new set of possibilities in systems design, but we aren't prepared to discuss any specific products using this at this time," said Sun's server chief John Fowler.

This week, AMD revealed a new partner program that will let third-parties such as Sun, IBM and smaller vendors build products that fit directly into Opteron sockets. Most analysts believed that IBM and Sun were just experimenting with how they would make use of this Opteron option. But The Register can confirm that engineering efforts have started within IBM to fit the far off Power7 chips right into the Opteron sockets.

By playing off Opteron motherboards, IBM would enjoy some serious cost savings. It would no longer need to produce separate motherboards for its Unix server line. Some questions remain as to how well x86 motherboards will stack up against RISC boards in the high-end SMP server market. Although, experts interviewed for this story said that by the time Power7 arrives - possibly in 2009 - AMD should be able to churn out top-notch SMP systems.

"I think people are getting smarter about how to take advantage of commodity stuff," said Fred Weber, AMD's former CTO and now CEO of MetaRam.

Given the apparent direction of Opteron designs, it would be feasible to create 32-socket systems outfitted with four-core chips, Weber said. And that's just in the 2007 or 2008 timeframe. So, IBM could easily build large SMPs by the time Power7 ships. When asked if all the Tier1 RISC vendors are likely to head toward AMD's boards, Weber said, "It would not surprise me if they did or if they didn't."

There are clear cost benefits to be had here for the RISC crowd. Intel, for example, plans to have both Itanium and Xeon chips slot into the same motherboards by at least 2009 and possibly 2008. That would lower the overall costs of producing Itanium servers for OEMs and likely translate to a cost break for end customers. If AMD could sign up IBM, Sun and Fujitsu, then it would enjoy a significant volume play and associated cost savings. And all three of the RISC vendors would potentially save money by turning to a single supplier for their motherboards rather than producing custom gear on their own.

Beyond the cost aspects, AMD has to be pleased from a public relations standpoint to secure this deal with IBM and to have possible deals with Sun and Fujitsu in the works. Its pay for openness policy seems to be working well against Intel for the moment.

IBM has spent the last few years pouring money into specialized chipsets for Xeon-based servers. Big Blue now seems to be forming deeper ties with AMD. ®

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