By Steve Hamm
Chief Storyteller, IBM
When Tom Rosamilia took command of IBM’s hardware division in early 2013, he faced a huge challenge. With the POWER systems, IBM made the world’s most capable server computers, yet sales were declining and there was no quick recovery in sight. One critical issue: the company’s high-end servers didn’t have a foothold in the fast-growing market for consumer- and public-cloud services.
A possible answer to Tom’s problem walked through his office door the first week he was on the job–in the person of Bradley McCredie, the chief technology officer for the hardware division. Brad urged him to make a radical change: Open IBM’s proprietary processor and system technology for use and modification by others.
The two men had discussed the idea previously–a number of times, in fact. But now Tom was in charge and Brad argued that the time had come to make a decision. “I said, ‘Let’s go for it,’” recalls Tom.
And go for it they did. Today, the OpenPOWER Foundation, the organization they created to execute on the strategy, has emerged as a force to reckon with in the computer industry. It’s modeled loosely on the Linux open-source software phenomenon. More than 100 companies or individuals have signed on as members, including Google, Rackspace, NVIDIA, Samsung and Micron. And many of the members have products in market or nearly ready for launch.
This initiative has the potential to turn the computing world upside down. Up until now, in Internet-scale cloud centers, one size has had to fit all: namely, commodity servers running X86 processors. But with computer companies and cloud service operators now able to license and modify POWER technologies, they’re not limited to using off-the-shelf components controlled by a single company, Intel. Instead, they can design or purchase systems custom-tailored to their needs. “Our number-one weapon is openness,” says Brad. ‘Because of it, innovation will accelerate across the tech industry.”
It’s an incredible journey for IBM and its partners, and Brad has been at the center of it all the way. His bosses and colleagues credit him with not only coming up with the strategy but with winning the support of the foundation’s initial members and with keeping the organization on track through the inevitable frictions and frustrations. Says Tom: “I was impressed with his creativity. We were going to change our strategy and do something totally different than we were doing and anybody else had done. It was a provocative disruption.”
For Ken King, general manager of IBM OpenPOWER Alliances, the key lesson was that Brad acted on instincts. He understood the market dynamics and the fact that so much was unknowable didn’t deter him. “Brad was willing to take a calculated risk,” says Ken. “That made it possible for us to move quickly, and that’s what we need right now. The market won’t wait for us.”
Brad has a way with people. He has loved team sports since growing up in Plantation, Florida, in a suburb backing up on the Everglades. He played soccer in high school, ultimate Frisbee during his university days (BS, MS and PhD at the University of Illinois), and softball on IBM teams in New York’s Hudson valley and in Austin, where he works now. All that sports activity reflects his personality: Brad is intensely competitive but also has a fun-loving and informal style. No traditional suit-and-tie IBMer, he often appears for meetings in shorts and t-shirts.
IBM is in the middle of a transformation into a company focused on cloud, analytics, mobile, social business and security. Brad has been through a major IBM transition before, so this one doesn’t rattle him. In 1993, shortly after he joined, the company faced major financial challenges and technology shifts. His first assignment was in the mainframe business, where he was a chip designer. The company was in the midst of a wrenching transition from BIPOLAR to CMOS chip technologies–one that was ultimately amazingly successful. “Back then, it was all opportunity for me. I had a chance to come in and help make CMOS work,” he says. “It’s the same kind of situation today. We have to make open technology work.”
He began exploring a new direction for POWER technology back in 2012. It quickly became clear that other companies wouldn’t commit to building computing systems based on IBM’s technology as long as it remained fully proprietary. That realization led ultimately to the formation of the OpenPOWER Foundation.
Commitments from other companies were hard to come by initially. Brad worked closely with their technologists to identify joint-development projects IBM could collaborate on with each of them. These days, however, companies come to him asking to participate. “Sometimes I break out in a sweat when I think of all the companies that have thrown in with us. It’s inspiring. And it’s also a tremendous responsibility to help them succeed. We can’t succeed unless they succeed.”’
Representatives of other companies on the board of the OpenPOWER Foundation say it has been a true partnership from the beginning. The key factor in getting it off the ground was their agreement that an independent organization separate from IBM should be set up to drive the initiative. They give Brad a lot of the credit for helping to create not just the organization but its culture.
“Part of what makes Brad effective in this project is that his demeanor is very personal and informal and he’s very approachable,” says Gordon MacKean, the chairman of the OpenPOWER Foundation, who is also director of one of the hardware teams at Google. “He’s a straight shooter. You know where you stand with him. That helps build trust, which is essential in an organization like this.”
Brad has also had a big impact inside IBM. He’s a true change agent. Ken King says Brad finds creative ways to get past roadblocks. In one situation, when IBM was negotiating pricing with a potential customer, he did a deep review and discovered ways that IBM could reduce its costs–so it could offer a better price. “It’s an example of him challenging the system and driving improvements because of it,” says Ken.
Brad has been looking forward to the OpenPOWER Summit, which takes place in San Jose today. This is essentially the coming-out party for the OpenPOWER initiative. A dozen companies plan on revealing products, and several dozen scientists will make presentations about the innovations they’re working on.
At the same time, the government of China and a number of technology companies there are intent on building a home-grown data center industry based on OpenPOWER.
The technology is also making inroads in the high-performance computing field. Two United States national laboratories are working with IBM to develop next-generation supercomputers based on it.
For Brad, this is strong evidence that all his work is beginning to pay off. It’s still early days. But this feels like the start of something big.