The (Near) Future of PowerPC and Linux

by Kai Staats

In June of this year, Apple announced a two-year migration away from the
PowerPC to an Intel CPU. Although this transition marks a pivotal point in Apple's
history, the ramifications to a wide-spread, dedicated, diverse PowerPC
user base may not be immediately obvious to the CPU agnostic end user.

Architecture religion aside, the PowerPC historically has offered an improved
price/performance/power-consumption/density ratio wherein particular high
performance codes are found to run at a much higher level of performance than
on their x86/ia64 counterparts. The scientists, researchers and cluster
administrators who prefer the PowerPC in their laptops, desktops and
clusters may find one of these three critical components suddenly removed from their
procurement portfolio.

In the Apple traditional of instantaneous old product removal from all
channels following a new product launch, and with no common knowledge as to
which platform will transition to Intel first, the PowerPC user base is
left in a game of Russian roulette.

With the backing of, an active, relatively
rapid movement is occurring to fill the perceived product void by computer OEMs and software
manufacturers whose product and customer foundation is built on the Power

Mercury Computer Systems and Terra Soft Solutions, for one, have joined forces to bring
to market the dual 970 XR9. The XR9 is a 1U or 4U rackmount compute node
that offers a full-featured extended ATX motherboard and an array of
new-to-Power HPC components, including a user accessible service processor,
reprogrammable firmware, board-level monitor and controls and two independent
PCI-X buses.

The dual IBM PowerPC 970 CPUs on-board the XR9 are the same as those found in
the current PowerPC-based Apple Xserve product line, with an IBM Northbridge
born of the same family. This means code can be migrated easily from the Xserve
or BladeCenter JS20 to the XR9, where all are running Linux.

Traditionally, PowerPC has offered a strong computational architecture for
signal and image processing, where the on-board AltiVec unit enables 4 x 32-bit
processes to execute in parallel. With the introduction of the IBM
PowerPC 970, a CPU built from the union of a single core of a POWER4 and an
AltiVec unit, Apple's G5 and IBM's BladeCenter JS20 have found in-roads to
noteworthy supercomputing centers and sizable HPC clusters in a variety of
markets, ranging from geophysics to life sciences, from the Department of
Defense to NASA.

In comparison to Apple's 1U Xserve, the XR9 offers greater flexibility with
adherence to the extended ATX form-factor in both 1U and 4U rackmount chassis
and room for greater than 20 on-board SATA drives. The two independent PCI-X
channels make certain all hosted cards are running without conflict, at full
bandwidth. The on-board Flash ROM enables drive-less booting with use of the
forthcoming port of LinuxBIOS. And a user interface to the on-board service
processor reduces CPU load by assuming board-level monitoring and control.

The XR9 offers the following:

  • Extended ATX mainboard
  • Dual IBM PowerPC 970FX CPUs up to 2.4
  • IBM CPC925 North bridge with 16-bit 400MHz
    HyperTransport cave, offering peer-to-peer access via reflected
    forward looping, 16-bit bus between Northbridge and first tunnel/PCI-X
    bridge and 8-bit buses between the tunnel/PCI-X bridge and south

Extensive I/O offerings:

  • Dual Gigabit Ethernet
  • Single 10/100 Ethernet port off South
  • 4 SATA channels
  • ATA133 IDE interface (Master +
  • 4 USB 1.1 ports
  • Dual RS-232 port
  • 2 independent PCI-X buses offering 3
    PCI-X slots
  • Optional Infiniband PCI-X HCA supporting
    dual 4X ports
  • Optional Serial FPDP PCI-X HCA
    supporting dual 2.5 gbaud ports

PowerPC 405EP Service and Control Processor:

  • I2C interface
  • 10/100 Ethernet port direct to Service
  • RS-232 Serial port
  • System Management Bus
  • 32K NVRAM with Real Time

Terra Soft is known for Yellow Dog Linux and Y-HPC, Red Hat/Fedora-based Linux operating systems for a diversity of Power
architecture computers, including Apple's historic and modern PowerPC product
line. Since 1983, Mercury has provided component-level and system-level
solutions that span hardware, software, silicon IP and services for
aerospace and defense, telecommunications, life sciences, energy, electronics
manufacturing, education and research.

Under contract with Mercury, Terra Soft completed the board support package
for the XR9 in the spring of this year. Terra Soft's 64-bit Y-HPC operating
system is supported by IBM's XLC++ and XLF compilers and Mercury's middleware
optimized libraries.

Terra Soft immediately offers the XR9 with 64-bit Y-HPC Linux OS pre-installed
as turn-key server and HPC cluster configurations. More information is

Although Apple's announced migration to Intel was a shot heard round the world,
it it important to know that many OEMs specialize in Power
architecture products. Design and engineering teams are working hard to
quickly bring to market products that not only replace those commodity items
required to conduct business as usual, but improve upon the products
themselves and offer greater diversity.

Kai Staats is the co-founder and CEO of Terra Soft Solutions,
the developer of Yellow Dog Linux and Y-HPC for Power architecture
computers. Terra Soft's integrated solutions are trusted in
mission-critical enterprises, DoE, DoD, NASA and higher education
systems nationwide.

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