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Broadcom chips in with 'blade' win

The communications chipmaker taps IBM, HP, Dell and Fujitsu-Siemens to use its technology for thin "blade" servers.

Communications chipmaker Broadcom will announce Monday that IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Dell Computer and Fujitsu-Siemens have incorporated the company's technology in their "blade" servers.

The Broadcom technology is a combination of the company's own proprietary networking components and technology gained through the acquisition of ServerWorks in 2001. ServerWorks makes chipsets, crucial chip assemblies that join servers' central processors to the rest of a system.

The announcement will be made at the Comdex Fall 2002 trade show, which kicks off Sunday night with a keynote address from Microsoft's Bill Gates.

The components are used in Dell's 1655mc, IBM's BladeCenter, HP's p-Class, and the Fujitsu-Siemens BX300, server products that are released or will be released in coming weeks, Broadcom said.

Blades are smaller servers inside an enclosure, typically stacked vertically like books in a bookshelf or horizontally like plates in a cupboard. The first generation of blades from pioneers such as RLX Technologies were usually low-powered systems, but newer designs use higher-end Intel processors for managing more demanding tasks.

ServerWorks' chipsets also are widely used on free-standing and rack-mounted servers using Intel processors. UBS Warburg securities analyst Alex Gauna estimates ServerWorks chipsets are used in 90 percent of Intel servers.

Market research firm IDC estimates that sales of rack-mounted and free-standing servers will slow, while the popularity of blade servers will jump considerably. Blade server shipments are expected to increase from about 250,000 this year to 2.2 million by 2005.

One of the key benefits of blade servers is that the hardware cuts down on the tangle of cable that is often seen sprouting from the backs of corporate systems. To simplify connections, blade servers come with hard-wired network connections within the chassis that lead to a built-in switch.

Broadcom's communications technology is key to this networking technology. First, the company sells switch processors that connect one blade server to another, and an entire server bank to the outside world. Second, the company has built components of the chipset that encode and decode data that's being sent on Ethernet networks.

Finally, Broadcom incorporates Ethernet technology that requires substantially fewer chips and draws less power than networking alternatives. Reducing power consumption--which also reduces heat and corresponding overheating risks--is a key design constraint for blades packed densely together.

To cut the networking power constraints, Broadcom put an Ethernet standard to a use for which it wasn't originally intended. The 1000BaseX part of the Ethernet specification is designed for transferring signals intended for copper wires onto fiber-optic lines, but the technology also can be used for copper wires, said Allen Light, product line manager for Broadcom's high-speed networking group.

"We've hijacked that interface," Light said.

The technology works with Ethernet that transfers data at 1 gigabit per second--a speed just arriving in servers. But through a similar next-generation standard called XAUI--10 Gigabit Attachment Unit Interface--the technology will work with coming 10 gigabit-per-second transfer speeds as well, Light said.