A better theory on why there won't be an open POWER10 workstation for awhile


In our previous analysis we suspected that Raptor's indigestion over POWER10 was IBM failing to release some component of the firmware, meaning it wasn't a truly open platform after all. Raptor, under whatever NDA prohibited them, couldn't say, but there was enough to do some educated reading between the lines regarding the problem.

So hats off to Hugo Landau, who did his own research on the subject. As you will recall, for POWER8 IBM introduced the Centaur memory buffers which serve essentially as off-chip memory controllers and a fourth level of cache, and scale-up Cumulus POWER9s (not the Nimbus POWER9s in Raptor workstations) can use them too. This enables a lot of logic to be move off-die and can turn what is a critical high-speed and potentially error-prone parallel interface into a serial one. IBM expanded this into the vendor-neutral Open Memory Interface, or OMI, which halves the latency of Centaur (to 5ns) and runs up to 25Gbps per lane. With OMI RAM technology can advance separately from the CPU, and the processor can be completely agnostic about what it's attached to (as opposed to Cumulus, which only "speaks" Centaur, and our Nimbus systems which use commodity directly-attached DDR4 RAM through an on-chip controller).

We reported previously that at the 2019 OpenPOWER summit Microchip Technology was announced as the first vendor of OMI DDIMMs, and although Micron, Samsung and SMART Modular were listed as planning to release their own, so far the only vendor of OMI controllers appears to be Microchip. We haven't heard anything about a Nimbus-alike POWER10 yet with direct-attached memory, so we have to assume that at least the first wave of POWER10 processors will only use OMI. Hugo's discovery was a obscure Github repo that appears to contain the firmware for the Microchip OMI controller — and no source code. Read Hugo's article for the additional dirty details.

The concept of RAM that requires firmware binary blobs is frankly very disconcerting: I shouldn't have to explain to any regular reader of this blog that if you own the RAM, you own the store, and you could potentially own the RAM this way (even/especially with a vendor lock: see SolarWinds). I won't say how I have knowledge of this, but various other cues indicate to me Hugo has found the exact reason POWER10 can't be considered open under any reasonable definition.

POWER9 systems can't last forever, of course. If there were going to be a truly open POWER10 system, we'd either have to reverse-engineer the Microchip controller firmware or develop a separate open memory controller of "our" own. Likewise, I'm pretty sure Raptor doesn't want to be in the DDIMM business, so if a separate Raptor-specific controller were required it may be simpler to just have RAM on the board as a build-to-spec option. Either way, while I understand IBM's decision with OMI to cater to their bandwidth-hungry institutional customers, the implementation they've chosen may put those very same high-value customers at risk. We should be glad Raptor didn't make the same choice and fortunately POWER9 systems will still be able to hold their own for awhile.

Comments

  1. So, my understanding is that IBM is still the only one making POWER9 and POWER10 ASICs, and while they've released a few cores, I'd like to see a second source, but also a cheaper option. I'd like to see OpenPOWER ASICs with a few cores and a low-enough power envelop to be used in laptops.

    Maybe that means going even lower and following RISC-V's path of building up a microcontroller ASIC base first, or those weird FPGA softcores masquerading as an ASIC off of microwatt or something.

    I just want to not have the whole ecosystem tied to whatever IBM decides to trickle down, and I have no idea if anybody other than Luke Kenneth Casson Leighton is working on trying to make other POWER devices. From what I can tell NXP would rather just do ARM for their embedded platforms, and don't care about POWER for anything anymore, so, that seems like a dead end too.

    Do you think there's room for other than IBM POWER anymore?

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  2. What you're looking for is exactly the Libre SoC effort: https://libre-soc.org/

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