Desktops

Blade pact is double-edged

An Intel-IBM partnership to build blade servers yields its first results--but the companies are running into resistance to their plan to make their models a widely used standard.

An Intel-IBM partnership to build blade servers yielded its first results this week, but the companies are running into resistance to their plan to make their models a standard widely used in the industry.

A year ago, Intel and IBM teamed to jointly develop blade servers. The partnership bore its first fruit when Intel announced its dual-processor Compute Blade SBXL52 at this week's Intel Developer Forum. But the system differs only in name from IBM's BladeCenter, a model Big Blue introduced in late 2002. For the next model--a four-processor blade--Intel has the lead, said Jeff Benck, director of Intel server product marketing at IBM.

By allying, the companies hope to sell enough of their products to establish their designs in effect as a standard that will sweep away some of the chaos of the still-new blade server market. And there's a lot of sweeping that could be done in a server category that research firm IDC believes will grow much faster than the overall market. Currently, Hewlett-Packard, Dell, IBM, Sun Microsystems, RLX Technologies, and Linux Networx each use a different technique for plugging the thin servers into the larger chassis.

"It's a standard more from a de facto standpoint," Benck said of the IBM-Intel effort. IBM and Intel aren't setting up a more neutral special-interest group to govern the technology, though the companies "have been pretty open...to anybody who wants to work with us on the platform."

HP, though, the leader in the market for servers using Intel processors, bristled at the Intel-IBM approach. "This is a very thinly veiled attempt at a standard. There's no standards committee," said Paul Miller, a director in HP's industry standard server platforms group.

"Any industry standards that HP promotes will be true open standards run by a standards body, not two companies drafting a press release," said Sally Stevens, director of HP's blade server platforms.

Standards for blades, whether set by a neutral group or by the dominance of a particular group, are a significant issue. If IBM and Intel succeed, they will have at least a year's head start developing products. And initial popularity could come with beneficial multiplier effects; a popular blade design could attract partners such as Nortel Networks or F5 Networks with special-purpose blades that plug into the same chassis, bringing new capabilities that could boost the popularity further.

IBM and Intel aren't the only ones calling for blade standards. In a September speech, Dell Chief Executive Michael Dell issued a similar plea, while a consortium called the Blade Systems Alliance includes promulgation of standards in its mission.

Don't count on the IBM-Intel effort to succeed anytime soon, said Illuminata analyst Jonathan Eunice. "It seems unlikely that Dell, HP or Sun would jump aboard IBM's train. Everyone knows that within three to five years there will be universal blade standards, but no one wants to blink first," he said. "No one wants to rush commoditization along any faster than it is already speeding," hastening the moment when customers will have an easier time shifting loyalties from one server maker to another.

Dell is still guarded about its plans. "We're not ready to discuss the specifics of our standardization efforts with the industry," said company spokeswoman Wendy Giever.

Sun, a top server maker but one that only recently started building products using Intel processors, was more guarded than HP on the Intel-IBM plan. "Sun is currently evaluating the objectives of Intel's new Modular Computing Alliance. If the goals of the alliance are in line with Sun's vision, Sun will consider whether it makes sense to join in this initiative in the future," Sun spokeswoman Sabrina Guttman said.

Blade servers slide into a chassis, lined up side-by-side like books in a bookshelf or stacked like dishes in a cupboard. The chassis typically provides shared resources such as a power supply and connections to external networks and storage systems, resources that a stand-alone server would have to carry on its own. In the longer-term vision for blades, many expect them to lose their own storage systems and rely even more on their network connections.

The blade idea was spawned during the Internet years, when interest in lower-end servers was intense and spending on them lavish, but the bottom dropped out of the market just as early blades from companies such as RLX arrived. Only now are blade servers from mainstream players trickling to market, but analyst firm IDC expects the category to take off.

"Server blades are on the cusp of tremendous growth in the market," IDC said in a September report. "While they represented only about 3 percent of the server unit shipments in the second quarter of 2003, with sales of 41,000 blades, IDC expects more than 2.2 million blades to ship worldwide by 2007, or about 27 percent of all new servers sold."

Standards for blades, whether set by a neutral group or by the dominance of a particular group, are a significant issue. If IBM and Intel succeed, they will have at least a year's head start developing products. And initial popularity could come with beneficial multiplier effects; a popular blade design could attract partners such as Nortel Networks or F5 Networks with special-purpose blades that plug into the same chassis, bringing new capabilities that could boost the popularity further.