July 9, 2008

New Linux-powered PowerStation dispels rumors Power Architecture's death

Author: Jack M. Germain

Terra Soft, the developer of Yellow Dog Linux on the PowerStation platform, is pushing the limits of design and performance with the planned mid-July release of a quad core PowerPC deskside tower that returns the Power Architecture to both the workstation and server markets at a competitive price.

Power Architecture has been a mainstay of the high-performance computing, personal game, automotive, telecommunications, and signal and image processing industries for the last decade. The new PowerStation, Terra Soft's first new hardware release in three years, is a consumer product with a primary focus on Power Architecture code development. As the Power Architecture is employed primarily in the embedded space, embedded system developers will find it useful to build Power code on a Power workstation in order to enable seamless code migration, according to Kai Staats, CEO of Terra Soft. The company intends to deliver the PowerStation primarily as a development workstation to Power Architecture OEM/ODMs and cluster owners, Staats says.

As a development workstation for embedded systems, the PowerStation aims to provide seamless code migration from host to target, reducing development cost and time to market. Developers can compile, test, and debug their code on the PowerStation and then quickly deploy finished applications on the embedded platform. "The process involves a simple copy or move command without time-consuming and often error-prone cross-compilation (building code for Power from an x86 box)," Staats says.

What it is

The YDL PowerStation targets a wide range of consumer and business needs. For instance, it can replace the now aging Apple PowerMac G5 product family. Terra Soft says all Linux code optimized for the former G4 and G5 systems will readily migrate to the PowerStation.

The PowerStation, running Yellow Dog Linux, can play host to system boards built upon IBM, Freescale, and AMCC Power Architecture chips, which share a common, compatible heritage to which the PowerStation's 970 cores belong and support. These chips are also a staple for Cell development. The PowerStation can be used to prepare and optimize code for Cell systems or perform as a head node for a Sony PS3 or high-performance IBM QS22 cluster.

The YDL PowerStation improves upon previous offerings with an embrace of open standards and ready support by Linux, according to Owen Stampflee, director of engineering for Terra Soft.

"By design the PowerStation is a very open box, from the firmware to the OS to the graphics card support. While we ship the PowerStation with YDL pre-installed, we welcome involvement of the greater Linux community, offering our support of all developers who are involved," Stamflee says.

The YDL PowerStation comes pre-installed with Yellow Dog Linux v6.0. The default application set includes the Firefox Web browser, Thunderbird email client, Pidgin IM/IRC client, Ekiga voice over IP phone application, OpenOffice.org, gThumb, the GIMP, and the RhythmBox Music Player. The distribution also includes games, multimedia applications, the Fluendo codec installer with MP3 installed by default, and a suite of personal accessories. Development tools include the GNU Compiler Collection (GCC), GNU Debugger (Gdb), Eclipse, Subversion, and a large collection of libraries and toolkits, including the IBM Cell SDK.

Far from dead

While Apple dropped support for the Power Architecture in 2005, the hardware has not disappeared. Power Architecture microprocessors are used in systems for terrain mapping, signals intelligence, image exploitation, smart weapons, radar, and satellite communications. It also is heavily deployed in aircraft engine control, fuel control, navigation and GPS positioning, instrumentation, and diagnostics.

To dispel the misbelief that the PowerPC is no longer competitive, Staats notes that Apple represented less than 5% of IBM's Power Architecture chip sales. Apple was at the time the most well-marketed of the Power-based consumer products. "When they left, they took that marketing with them, but not the volume of chips sales," he says.

Staats says the top three game boxes all run Power: XBox360, Wii, PS3. "This represents tens of millions of chips sales per year." Additionally, half of all new automobiles have at least one Power chip on-board, he says, and every long distance phone call in the world moves across at least one Power chip.

Competitive edge?

Though RISC hardware may be more costly, it can hold its own against off-the-shelf Intel and AMD hardware, Staats insists. "You will find that the price/performance of this quad-core 2.5GHz box at $1,800 is well positioned against similar priced Intel systems."

"The game in this space is relative cost. What Terra Soft offers is a solution that appears similar to IBM's but at a lower overall initial price," Rob Enderle, president and principal analyst for the Enderle Group, told Linux.com.

In addition, while IBM typically does incredibly well at an enterprise level, the ability for a large company like IBM to address the needs of a much smaller firm is relatively poor, he says.

"So Terra Soft offers a lower cost and likely better smaller business unit-focused solution while still embracing the IBM Power platform. They don't have to be less than an Intel or AMD solution. They just have to come in under a similar IBM solution. It is a niche offering, but small companies often can do just fine in niche markets," Enderle says.


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