IBM targets Linux with free motherboard design

IBM's Microelectronics division is offering for free the design for a PowerPC motherboard that runs Linux as a way to seed the market for PowerPC systems that run the open-source operating system. But IBM itself will not use the design.

IBM's Microelectronics division is offering for free the design for a PowerPC motherboard that runs Linux as a way to seed the market for PowerPC systems that run the open-source operating system, an IBM engineer says.

"It's a very Linux approach to the marketplace in that the platform is open and freely available for use by any customer," said Steve Faure, an advisory engineer in the PowerPC Applications group at IBM Microelectronics in Austin, Texas. "What we've done is created this reference design that uses industry standard components" to enable original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to fit the motherboards in the standard ATX motherboard case.

IBM will not charge license fees or royalties, nor is the company going to manufacture its own motherboards based on the design, he said.

"IBM is not making a product; no IBM division will make these motherboards," Faure said. "We just created prototypes."

The company will provide interested OEMs with the schematics, bill of materials or component list, and artwork of the circuit boards, according to Faure, adding that the systems should be easy to make.

"It uses much of the technology in x86 motherboards, but with the PowerPC chip," Faure said. "We've concentrated specifically in using standard off-the-shelf components that are readily available. The only time-to-market issues for any potential OEM would be if they wanted to modify the design and put their own spin on it."

Faure said he could not reveal the names of any OEMs the company is talking to about the motherboards or say when one might be announced. However, products based on the motherboards could conceivably be available in early 2000, he said.

The architecture harkens from IBM's efforts in the mid-90s to create reference designs for Mac clones, Faure said. IBM took that work and updated it by adding things like higher bus speeds and support for accelerated graphics port (AGP) signals, he said.

IBM generated a lot of interest in the motherboards when it demonstrated the prototype at LinuxWorld Expo this week in San Jose, California, Faure said. The company will show them off next week at HP World in San Francisco.

"The thinking here is that there are all these manufacturers building x86 boxes to run Linux, and if we can get makers to build PowerPC boxes for Linux they will be able to offer an alternative to their customers," he said.

Currently, Apple Computer Inc. is the only major computer manufacturer to use PowerPC chips on its motherboard.

"A lot of people out there right now are running Linux on PowerPC but they're using Macs, so they're basically paying for a box to run both Mac software and Linux," said Faure.

Faure and a representative from LinuxPPC Inc., which makes the primary distribution of Linux for PowerPC computers, said that enabling OEMs other than Apple to make PowerPC motherboards for Linux will benefit people who want to use Linux for performance and power consumption reasons but don't want to pay high prices for a Macintosh system.

"It's going to reduce the cost of getting Linux on PowerPC," said Jason Haas, marketing director for LinuxPPC, based in Hales Corner, Wisconsin. "For what you pay for a low-end PowerMac you can buy a relatively high-end Intel-based computer."

Targeted users of the system would include developers, Internet service providers and scientific users, Haas said.

Faure said he didn't think the motherboard offer would offend Apple, one of its PowerPC partners.

"I would be surprised if they had any objection," he said. "I just don't think their customers are, by and large, Linux customers. This reference design addresses a different market from Apple."

Apple officials did not return a call seeking comment.

More information can be obtained at IBM's Web site at http://www.chips.ibm.com.

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