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Intel program to certify server components

Chipmaker says smaller computer makers should have a better shot at selling bigger systems.

In a move that makes it more like a full-fledged server maker, Intel announced a program Monday to certify that its "building block" components work with hardware add-ons and software packages from other companies.

Intel makes most of its money selling components such as processors, but has been gradually extending into higher-level design and assembly, producing near-finished server packages. Certification takes this process one step further, though Intel says it won't go as far as building complete machines. Certifying the compatibility of the software or hardware later added by other vendors--a process that server makers usually handle--can head off problems and reassure customers.

Intel's program is designed to make it easier for smaller computer makers to build higher-end Intel-based servers using four Xeon processors or two Itanium 2 processors, said Dave Wheat, the senior marketing manager responsible for the new Enterprise Server Acceleration Alliance. Companies that lack the resources of a computer giant such as Dell often make their products using off-the-shelf components from Intel.

Peter Glaskowsky, an independent analyst, said being able to offer certified products could give smaller computer makers a better chance at selling higher-end products. "Certifications have been one of those things that if you had the resources to do it, you had an edge," he said. "If Intel makes it easier for companies to offer certified systems, then it makes a competitive shift to those smaller companies."

While dominant companies such as Dell, Hewlett-Packard or IBM probably aren't worried, the Intel program could put more pressure on medium-size computer makers further down the pecking order, he said.

Wheat acknowledged that some might not be eager to see any leveling of this playing field, but added, "It's also very valuable in...allowing the small and medium businesses to have access to what was typically a very high-end solution."

So far, companies certifying their products in the program include database seller Oracle; backup systems specialist Quantum; InfiniCon, which makes adapters and switches for the high-speed InfiniBand network technology; and EMC's VMware, which sells virtualization software to subdivide a server so it can run several operating systems.

Intel has been gradually expanding from selling just its processor products to higher-level products as well, including chipsets that join processors to other parts of a system, network controllers, and motherboards packed with all a computer's electronics.

Intel already sells complete Itanium 2 servers and sophisticated blade servers. In another sphere, the company is working to assemble kits that will let smaller companies effectively sell white-box storage systems as well.

Although the company makes complete servers in some cases, it doesn't sell them under its own brand name but provides them to general computer makers such as Bull in France or Lenovo in China.

In the long run, Intel will stop short of offering products as complete as Dell's, Wheat said. "We are a building-block supplier. That is our business and the business we're going to stay in. Dell really owns the solution top to bottom," he said. "What we can do is assist in getting some of these certifications, but we will never own the entire system top to bottom."

Intel has had some rough times with one key server building block: chipsets, a market that Broadcom subsidiary ServerWorks has dominated. But the situation is improving for Intel, as it gets better able to control the introduction of new server technology such as higher-speed memory.

"From a technical standpoint, the ServerWorks people stumbled a little bit. Intel has really good chipsets for up to four-way (four-processor) servers," Glaskowsky said. "They've done a good job of taking a lot of the business back that ServerWorks had taken."