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2015 IBM Fellows

Steve Fields

Steve Fields

IBM Systems
Director of Power Systems Design

Legacy. Boomerang. Master inventor. Now, Steve Fields can add Fellow to his IBM resume. The second generation IBMer has helped build and transform the Power server line into the world’s most-powerful, open, and maybe thanks to Watson, smartest, systems in the world.

“My dad worked for IBM Federal Systems in Manassas, Virginia. So, I grew up around him and his friends – fellow IBMers – talking about sonar systems for submarines. And computers were everywhere,” Steve said. His first college job was as a co-op on that same IBM Federal team in 1988, where he was hired on shortly thereafter.

But it didn’t last long. IBM sold its military unit to Loral in 1993. Steve found himself outside the IBM family for the first time in his life. “I stuck with it for a couple of years, but when the opportunity came up I jumped at the chance to rejoin IBM and work on designing chips to converge RS/6000 and AS/400 systems,” Steve said. Even though it meant moving from the Washington DC area to Austin, TX (a place in 1996 that was still thought of as a quaint college town; and where SXSW Interactive was only one year old), his family was happy, and so was his IBM family.

As for the IBM AS/400, it was the industry’s first system compatible with legacy system programs. It evolved into what are IBM’s Power Systems, today. And Steve kept evolving, too. He led the design, verification, instrumentation and test technologies used for the POWER4 processor, the world’s first 1 GHz chip. POWER4’s launch in 2001 began the rise of Power Systems’ dominance in the UNIX market. Since then, Power has powered Watson, and became IBM’s system for big data, analytics and cloud.

The introduction of its latest iteration, POWER8, represented a wholesale, non-traditional shift for the Power business – and really, the entire industry. With a small portfolio of servers, the design of entry-level Power Systems had always been a balancing act between capability and cost. So, IBM decided to open up the system, calling it OpenPOWER.

“To show what POWER8 can do, we built a powerful family of scale-out systems that play well with our install base, but which also have strong memory and input-output capabilities to excel at modern data-intensive applications. OpenPOWER partnerships now give us the ability – and flexibility – to build all sorts of server configurations (at different costs),” Steve said.

The companies that have been drawn to OpenPOWER also share our culture of innovation and want to build products that solve hard problems.

The performance and technical capabilities were compelling, but nobody had ever created the truly open server hardware ecosystem that was needed. And sharing open source code is one thing. But expensive, physical hardware?

In pieces, from the chips up through the software stack, Steve’s team believed it could work. IBM and partners including Google, Tyan, Mellanox, and NVIDIA established the non-profit OpenPOWER Foundation so any company could join and build their own custom servers, or collaborate with others to fine-tune their own Linux-based systems.

“I wish we had been in a position to do something like OpenPOWER two or three years earlier, but the industry wasn’t ready for it. Today, we see a lot of acceptance of the need for a second architecture in hyperscale datacenters. There is also a recognition that microprocessors, alone, are no longer delivering the historical rate of cost-for-performance improvement, and that innovation across the full stack is required to keep the industry moving forward,” Steve said.

Last year, Google built a server motherboard to evaluate their software stack on POWER8, and Taiwan’s Tyan recently built the first commercially available OpenPOWER server. The team’s next task: deploy POWER8-based systems in SoftLayer, IBM’s cloud platform.

“This is the best time ever to work on Power. By opening up the POWER architecture and implementing technologies like NVIDIA’s high-speed CPU-to-GPU connector, NVLINK, and our hardware accelerator, CAPI, our partners can innovate in ways that aren’t possible on other platforms.

“The companies that have been drawn to this opportunity also share our culture of innovation and want to build products that solve hard problems for their clients or for their own businesses. We’ve had a lot of fun working with them,” Steve said.

Steve Fields in his own words...

What was the best piece of advice you’ve received?

When I was an IBM co-op at 18 or 19 years old, Warren Jensen, an IBMer and family friend I’ve known since I was 8 years old, told me “Steve, I’m going to give you the only piece of career advice you’ll ever need…work hard, stay out of trouble, and good things will happen.”

Where do you come up with your best ideas?

My “eureka” moments come when I get some quiet time walking our dogs, Boomerang, age 14, and Cooper, 5. Every morning the alarm goes off at 5:00 a.m. and Cooper is immediately on the bed making sure one of us is up to walk them.

What do you like to do away from work?

Austin's a great family city, with some fantastic food trucks. So, it's a lot of fun to get out with the family and enjoy the variety. A few favorites are the “Shiner Monte Cristo” from Hey! ...You Gonna Eat or What?, “Son of a Peach” from Gordough’s, and the “Fried Avocado” from The Mighty Cone.

What was your first job, ever?

My first job in high school was as a bus boy at an all-you-can-eat seafood restaurant in Manassas, Virgnia. Nothing smells worse than the dumpster behind a seafood restaurant. It made me really appreciate going to college!

How did you find out about being named a Fellow, and what does it mean to you?

[IBM Systems Senior Vice President] Tom Rosamilia called me about being named a Fellow while I was driving from San Francisco to San Jose for a meeting. It will take a while to sink in. Growing up in an IBM family, it's a tremendous honor. More importantly, I also see this as a strong endorsement of the transformation that our team has achieved in the past year to get the Power Systems business headed in the right direction.


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