IBM's new POWER6 chip is a 64-bit, dual-core processor with 790 million transistors running at up to 4.7 GHz and 8 MB L2 cache

Cross section of a IBM POWER6, photographed using a scanning electron microscope, shows two transistors in gold
IBM claims to be launching the world's fastest chip for UNIX servers

IBM just launched the dual-core 64-bit POWER6 processor running at 4.7 GHz, which doubles the speed of the previous generation POWER5 while using nearly the same amount of electricity to run and cool it.

The POWER6 processor is a result of a five-year R&D period, is composed of 790 million transistors and is built using IBM’s 65nm process technology. IBM scientists targeted the way instructions are executed inside the chip to improve performance. For example, in the POWER6, the number of pipeline stages – the chunks of operations that must be completed in a single cycle of clock time – are kept static, but each stage is made faster, removing unnecessary work and doing more in parallel. As a result, execution time is reduced.

Earlier this year, IBM hinted that its new POWER6 architecture may hit frequencies higher than 5 GHz.

The POWER6 chip has a total cache size of 8 MB per chip – four times the POWER5 chip – to keep pace with the processor bandwidth. With 300 GB/s on tap, IBM boasts that its processor has so much bandwidth that the POWER6 chip could download the entire iTunes catalog in about 60 seconds. IBM believes that it has designed the POWER6 chip with a balanced amount of bandwidth and processing power.

“Like the victory of IBM’s Deep Blue chess-playing supercomputer 10 years ago this month, the debut of POWER6 processor-based systems proves that relentless innovation brings ‘impossible’ goals within reach,” said Bill Zeitler, senior vice president, IBM Systems and Technology Group. “The POWER6 processor forges blazing performance and energy conservation technologies into a single piece of silicon, driving unprecedented business value for our customers.”

To facilitate the lower energy demands of the new chip, the POWER6 designers separated circuits that can’t support low voltage operation onto their own power supply “rails,” allowing IBM to dramatically reduce power for the rest of the chip. IBM engineers also used a new method of chip design that enables POWER6 to operate at low voltages, allowing the same chip to be used in low power blade environments as well as large, high-performance symmetric multiprocessing machines.

In another design to reduce energy consumption and heat production, processor clocks can be dynamically turned off when there is no useful work to be done and turned back on when there are instructions to be executed. Also, the chip has configurable bandwidth, enabling customers to choose maximum performance or minimal cost.

Parts of the memory not being utilized are dynamically turned off and then turned back on when needed. In cases where an over-temperature condition is detected, the POWER6 chip can reduce the rate of instruction execution to remain within an acceptable, user-defined temperature envelope.

The chip is fast too, as a server built by IBM using the POWER6 architecture is the first ever to hold all four major benchmark speed records for business and technical performance. IBM says that its new 2- to 16-core server is multiple times faster than the HP Superdome or Itanium machines.   

The POWER6 chip is also aimed as being a midrange consolidation machine, containing special hardware and software that allows it to create many virtual servers on a single box. IBM calculates that 30 SunFire v890s can be consolidated into a single rack of the new IBM machine, saving more than $100,000 per year on energy costs.

IBM plans to introduce the POWER6 chip throughout the System p and System i server lines. The POWER6 chip in the new IBM System p 570 server is the first UNIX microprocessor able to calculate decimal floating point arithmetic in hardware. Until now, calculations involving decimal numbers with floating decimal points were done using software. The built-in decimal floating point capability gives tremendous advantage to enterprises running complex tax, financial and ERP programs.

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