Clearing confusion regarding modern PowerPC endianness

I am having to correct, with alarming regularity, confusion regarding the endianness of modern PowerPC and POWER chips.  This article is going to answer a lot of those questions, with facts and citations.

What endianness are modern PowerPC / POWER CPUs, including POWER9?
Fact: All POWER Architecture processors since POWER3 support both big and little endian modes. This is because the PowerPC ISA defines an endian-switch bit in a processor control register (MSR), and all POWER processors since POWER3 implement the PowerPC ISA. The PowerPC ISA dates back to the 1990s, where AIX and Linux were exclusively big endian and Windows NT (yes, Windows NT) ran on PowerPC in little endian mode. Most POWER hardware, and most PowerPC computers, historically had firmware that only supported big endian mode. Reports are that POWER4 and POWER5 chips do not support setting the MSR because no firmware supports this mode, but I have no citation to confirm nor deny this. (My IBM POWER hardware starts at POWER6.) This has changed with POWER8, and now modern computers support both. POWER8 and POWER9 can run in either endian, though they still default to big endian during initial bootup (and the firmware services are still in big endian, requiring a byteswap for little endian OSes).
Isn’t Linux only being developed for PowerPC on little endian now?
Fact: The Linux kernel supports both endians equally.
Didn’t Debian drop support for big endian PowerPC with Jessie?
Fact: Debian still “actively supports” big endian 64-bit PowerPC; it is not a release architecture because it does not have enough dedicated maintainers. The port is still fully functional and is kept up to date.
When you buy a new POWER computer, aren’t your only choices of operating system little endian?
Fact: In addition to Debian’s big endian port, there are plenty of other operating systems that support big endian. Gentoo’s PPC64 profile is bi-endian in nature. FreeBSD and Adélie Linux are exclusively big endian, and support all the modern features of POWER9 including DARN, Radix MMU, and more. Devuan is currently adding PPC64 support for both endians.
Isn’t IBM (or OpenPOWER, or [another member organisation of OpenPOWER]) investing solely in little endian for the future?
Fact: OpenPOWER is dedicated to supporting development of both BE and LE.

Aren’t you stuck with one endian or the other?
Fact: Linux’s KVM hypervisor lets you run an environment with the opposite endianness of your host. You can freely run either endian on your host and still have the software of the other endianness available to you with no issues.

7 thoughts on “Clearing confusion regarding modern PowerPC endianness”

  1. > Linux’s KVM hypervisor lets you run an environment with the opposite endianness of your host.

    Is this also true for the 970MP (G5)?
    I’ve tried several times to run an LE guest with qemu/KVM, but it always gives me errors and random segfaults.


    1. Nope, the PPC970 (aka G5) doesn’t support little endian as it was optional in the ISA. This is, why PowerMac G5 doesn’t run virtualPC.


      1. It for sure doesn’t support the little-endian switch bit, but it’s unclear whether it does or doesn’t support starting and running in little endian mode. What’s for sure is that OpenFirmware supports big endian only,


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