Fans of alternative, non-x86 CPU architectures haven’t had it easy the past few decades. Intel and AMD collectively own the desktop, laptop, workstation, and nearly all of the server markets. IBM, Oracle, and other non-x86 manufacturers have been pushed to the margins — IBM still has its own mainframe and big iron business, but the price tags on that hardware have more zeroes on them than enthusiasts can afford. A new crowdfunding project seeks to change that, with plans to build a completely open motherboard based around Power8.
The project, dubbed Talos, is built by Raptor Engineering, a member of the OpenPower foundation. The hardware itself will support multiple Linux distros, including Red Hat Enterprise Linux, SUSE Linux Enterprise Server, CentOS, Debian, and Ubuntu. Support for both Little Endian and Big Endian modes is also available, though Fedora 22 is the only Linux distro specifically named as compatible in that mode.
The board is merely a render at this point, but the engineers plan to implement support for up to 256GB of memory, two x16 PCIe lanes (both of which are compatible with OpenCAPI), 10 SATA ports, and eight USB 3.0 ports in total. Power consumption isn’t going to be low — the CPU heat sink is described as dissipating 190W continuously in an Office environment. This jives with what Anandtech reported in their Power8 versus Broadwell shootout earlier this summer. While the IBM chips they tested are capable of matching or surpassing Intel’s highest-end cores in certain environments, they can’t match Intel’s power consumption. If you can afford a server project like this, however, you can probably afford some fans and air conditioning. The goal is to support both AMD and Nvidia GPUs, but there’s a basic 2D video solution embedded on the motherboard if you don’t need a graphics card.
We don’t cover many crowdfunding projects at ExtremeTech, because most of the pitches we get are frankly terrible. While we can’t make any promises about any crowdfunding project or platform delivering what it promises, the level of detail Raptor Engineering provides is fairly high, and its affiliation with the Open Compute Project suggests this company isn’t going to vanish and leave customers holding the bag. This shouldn’t be read as an endorsement — but the project appears serious enough and interesting enough to deserve some discussion.
To be honest, IBM seems to be making more progress with its OpenPower initiative than we expected it would. When IBM announced the strategy several years ago, it seemed a last, desperate attempt to make Power relevant. Since then, there’s been a fair degree of interest and support for OpenPower, from multiple companies. I don’t think Intel is shaking in its boots just yet, but projects like this could help spur interest and development for Power architectures, providing an alternative source for CPUs and high-performance systems. Power8 systems still aren’t cheap — IBM doesn’t sell chips for $100 – $350 the way Intel does — but the Talos project could make the technology at least a little more accessible.
There are multiple sets of benchmark data and videos on the project page if you’re curious about Linux support, benchmark performance, and x86 emulation via QEMU, an open source x86 virtual emulator.