A number of coming technologies will undoubtedly change the world as we know it. Two came to light last week while I was trying, and failing, to enjoy an infrequent vacation. One is a power storage technology that has high capacity and doesn’t catch fire or explode like lithium ion batteries. The other, and far more important, is artificial intelligence (AI), which has the potential to change our lives for the better or worse, but dramatically either way.
An alliance between two of the most powerful companies in this race, IBM and NVIDIA, was announced last week around a small, intelligent, rack-mounted server called the Power System S822LC. This was part of a three-server launch last week and I think the implications are really interesting. NVIDIA is naturally very excited about this.
Let’s explore why this partnership between two powerhouses could be really interesting.
The word that IBM has connected with itself for much of my life is “Think,” and when it announced Watson, it put itself on a path to make that connection a reality. But Watson, as powerful as it is, is an intellectual baby when it comes to where the industry wants to go. Intelligent machines -- computers that can learn, adapt, and then make decisions based on data -- represent the future of computing and, some argue, the future of the human race.
This makes for an impressive potential world impact and the firm, or firms, that get this right first will likely own the next age of computing. IBM, with Watson, got the initial lead, but Watson is expensive to buy and expensive to train.
That’s why this isn’t a one-company effort. It can’t be; it will require a team.
Now, while IBM was working on large-scale AI, NVIDIA has been working on packaged intelligence as a technology. Its Drive PX, CX, and DGX-1 platforms are designed to make cars intelligent. However, DGX-1 goes well beyond this in that it forms the basis for the learning that other platforms can use in production. In short, you train the DGX-1 and it trains, at scale, everything else it feeds. This is close, in concept, to being able to manufacture things (initially cars) that come off the line with all of the knowledge they need to operate. If we were talking people, this would be like having a kid that starts out at birth knowing everything you know.
Now we just need to put the parts together.
If we combine the two companies, we get the potential for not only a system that is far less expensive to buy but one that is far less expensive to train. The result may potentially be a system that is far smarter than Watson, far more capable than the DGX-1, and able to move both companies to the next tier.
The market is currently largely x86, and Intel dominates. Only one non-x86 platform has the potential to address this AI opportunity near term, and that is OpenPOWER, largely because it is backed by IBM and, unlike ARM, it is in production for servers of this class. It is also a technology shared by a variety of vendors, making it more attractive to customers like Google, which is aggressive with AI and particularly favors open systems.
When you combine IBM, NVIDIA and OpenPOWER, you get something unique and potentially very powerful in this race to intelligent computing.
In the end, the eventual success of this effort will likely be directly attributable to how well IBM and NVIDIA partner over time. A similar partnership between IBM, Intel and Microsoft created the PC market. If IBM and NVIDIA can do better (that earlier partnership fell apart), then the potential for both firms to own this next technology wave is unmatched. If not, then we’ll just have another story about big firms failing to meet their potential.
For now, IBM and NVIDIA have the inside track, but it’s early in the race. While this new line of servers is a great start, as both companies know, it matters far less who leads a race at the beginning than who leads a race at the end.
Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm. With over 30 years’ experience in emerging technologies, he has provided regional and global companies with guidance in how to better target customer needs; create new business opportunities; anticipate technology changes; select vendors and products; and present their products in the best possible light. Rob covers the technology industry broadly. Before founding the Enderle Group, Rob was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group, and held senior positions at IBM and ROLM. Follow Rob on Twitter @enderle, on Facebook and on Google+.