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IBM looks to 'open' hardware

Not content with just open software, IBM is setting its sights on open hardware with the help of

IBM has already proven itself to be one of the top promoters of Linux and open source technology, so why not try a hand with hardware?

Through, a body created to promote open source and Power -- IBM's fifth generation, 64-bit chip set architecture -- IBM is attempting to do just that, and to date has had quite a run, said Pund-IT Research principal analyst Charles King.

Most recently, Big Blue announced plans to provide the community with key hardware and software specifications for the Cell processor platform.

The Cell project is a joint venture between IBM, Toshiba America Inc. and Sony Corp. of America that IBM has said is responsible for creating a processor 10 times more powerful than what is currently available. One of the chip's first applications will be in the next-generation Playstation 3 platform due out in 2006.

"Industries like IT that revel in revolutionary concepts and innovative solutions sometimes overlook the power of traditional methods to grow business," King said. "IBM's decision to open the Cell architecture to and its new BladeCenter T offerings appears to recognize the role that building and nurturing traditional business relationships play in ensuring future growth of leading-edge technologies."

King is optimistic about the future of, an entity that began with 14 core members one year ago and has blossomed into a body of more than 25 members. Eleven of the new members, including Barcelona Supercomputing Center, Celestica Inc. and Teak Technologies Inc., were recently announced at a consortium held in Barcelona, Spain, earlier this month.

The consortium holds promise in King's eyes because so far it has allowed IBM, a huge open source benefactor, to broaden its open source efforts well beyond Linux independent software vendors and promote the Power platform as the preferred hardware for open source.

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"The expansion of's membership by over two-thirds and the more than 5,000 developers currently working on Power-based [applications] suggests that the effort remains on track," King said.

More importantly -- for IBM at least -- King sees the "opening" of software specs for Cell as a likely way to expand interest in, and further promote a sense of openness both in hardware and software.

"The Cell architecture has garnered a great deal of interest among media and entertainment developers, in part due to IBM's notable co-developers Sony and Toshiba," King said. "But Cell's remarkable graphics and visualization processing power make the platform an intriguing choice for a much wider range of applications and solutions.

"By adding Cell to, IBM will likely build on the group's influence and further improve the Power platform's visibility among open source developers," King added.

While the comparisons between open software and open hardware may make for good headlines, King said there are differences and challenges unique to each environment.

"The difference here is that when most people think open source software they think Linux; originally a set of code created by [Linus] Torvalds who then basically opened it up, took the code and invited the world in," he said. is similar, but the real difference is that rather than the individual creating a discreet code set, Power hardware tends to be something that is developed by corporations, King said. The interesting thing about is that IBM has taken its proprietary Power architecture and has opened it up to so that other companies can get in and develop new Power based-technologies, he added.

To be fair, however, King explained that IBM is certainly more controlling of who develops on Power, as opposed to the wide open nature of open source.

"With, basically it is not that any guy of the street can get hold of the architecture and play around with it in their garage," King said. "[IBM] is vetting the people who get in, but at same time they have offered a level of access that is pretty singular in processor community … in a way is really a pioneering effort and it will be interesting to see if IBM succeeds."

This story originally appeared

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