On a recent Hacker News discussion someone pointed me to this weird historical oddity: the AMD Opteron-socket-compatible POWER7 as reported in El Reg, circa 2006.

We use a POWER6 here at Floodgap for the main server, which as typical for RISC servers of those days uses a bespoke logic board and getting a replacement for it was quite expensive (as we found out when it blew one in 2014). Part of this was no doubt due to their low production volumes and in 2006 IBM was still producing x86 Xeon-based servers, so it made logical sense to try to consolidate their manufacturing. (Recall Apple did something similar with the Power Macintosh 4400 and the "Yellowknife"-derived "Gossamer" beige Power Macintosh G3, both of which were intended to use, or at least use more, off-the-shelf commodity PC components.)

What was particularly interesting about this concept, however, was that the envisioned AMD motherboard would also have accommodated SPARC processors, intended to attract IBM, Sun and Fujitsu at a time when Intel was planning to unify their own hardware for Xeon and Itanium (rip). In some respects it may have reflected an IBM perception that Itanium was potentially a threat to their RISC line and to achieve similar economies as Intel planned to.

Did this happen? Although the Register's article implies some prototyping was done, it doesn't look like it ever saw the light of day, and it's not clear why the agreement foundered. Indeed, the POWER7 systems I've all seen continued to use a custom board and I've never heard anything about SPARCs of that generation using such a common logic board either. In particular, the lowest level Power 720 820x machines — the ones that would have been most likely to use such a cost-reduced design — are in fact very similar to the POWER6 820x machines (including our local 8203-E4A), and there are even upgrade paths.

The idea didn't really die, though, because IBM finally opened up their architecture into OpenPOWER with the POWER8 and now anyone can make a board that a Power chip can go into. And, of course, one particular vendor's POWER9 workstation is what this very article is being typed on. Naturally this wasn't altruism on Big Blue's part; it was their attempt to build a larger multi-front ecosystem to combat x86 dominance in the server room, which would embiggen the pie for "big RISC" servers and thus IBM's slice of it. If it also caused Power chips to turn up in other environments, well, that would be more icing on the cake. While the "Opteron POWER7" looks like it never happened, and no one's putting Epyc chips in Talos IIs, at least some concept of a cross-vendor Power logic board did manage to survive and we OpenPOWER pioneers are the lucky beneficiaries today.


  1. Such a scary headline there, it got me worried for a moment! It sounded as if AMD was to create their own POWER processors using the same ISA as POWER7's. I was fearing we would have our own POWER version of AMD's PSP (AMD's equivalent of Intel's IME). lol
    After reading the article (which was very interesting btw!), I simply went "Oh...".

    Speaking of OpenPOWER, I'd find it awesome if other companies also got interesting in implementing their own desktop computers with POWER chips. Some competition with Raptor could be beneficial for everyone.


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