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IBM, Intel push 'open' blade server spec

The duo's effort to establish a de facto standard isn't sitting well with rivals HP and Dell.

IBM and Intel plan to announce on Thursday a new step in their effort to establish their design as the dominant blade server technology, but other server makers favor a traditional standards process.

IBM and Intel, which began cooperating on blade server development in 2002, plan to announce that third-party companies can more easily create devices such as network switches or special-purpose servers that plug into the blade server chassis.

"Today, if you want to go build something for BladeCenter or its derivatives from Intel, you need to cut a deal with IBM or Intel. What's new is you still have to sign the technology license agreement, but it's royalty-free," said Tim Dougherty, director of BladeCenter strategy for IBM.

The move, intended to broaden the ecosystem of technology companies supporting the design, is the newest step in the effort to make the IBM-Intel design a de facto standard. Rivals, however, would prefer a neutral standard that would give them a voice in the design. Their interest is no surprise: Market research IDC forecasts that blade servers will account for 29 percent of server shipments in 2008.

Development of the BladeCenter technology remains firmly in IBM and Intel hands. And while plug-in interfaces are more open, the chassis design remains closed, meaning that only IBM, Intel and their business partners will be able to sell them.

Releasing the specification is a smart marketing move, but doesn't give customers the true standards they desire, Gartner analyst John Enck said.

"I don't really consider this an open standard or even an industry standard. This is simply IBM and Intel publishing their specification for their hardware so companies can produce products for it," Enck said. "When a customer makes this decision, they're making a decision that's not going to have interoperability."

Insight64 analyst Nathan Brookwood agreed, but said it's tough for companies to switch from proprietary designs that lock customers in standard designs that could help their rivals. "That's always been the issue whenever vendors each have a proprietary standard. None of them wants to help its competitors," Brookwood said.

Dougherty said he hopes the licensing change will mean the number of devices that plug into BladeCenters will increase from a handful today to hundreds. Many companies are interested in building their own, he said.

Possibilities include network gear; adapters that could connect to external devices such as iSCSI storage networks; and special-purpose servers such as firewalls or encrypted communication accelerators, Dougherty said.

Diversity of designs
Blade servers are thin, lower-end systems that fit into a larger chassis that can accommodate not just the servers but also modules for networking, storage or specialized tasks. IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems have differing blade designs, while the fourth major server seller, Dell, plans to introduce its products in the fourth quarter. The variety of designs means that companies such as Brocade or Cisco have to create, test, certify and market separate devices for each companies' products.

Dougherty said there are some blade standardization efforts under way, but "those things take time." Early efforts could focus on standardizing switches that plug into blade servers, he said.

IBM right now can afford to throw its blade server weight around, though. In the second quarter of 2004, it had blade server sales of $101 million, 44 percent of the total $233 million market, according to IDC.

Dougherty dodged the question of whether IBM would prefer a neutral standards body for blade designs to a de facto design set by IBM and Intel. "This is one that customers decide, not us," he said.

HP and Dell, however, with 32 percent and 3 percent of the blade market, respectively, clearly would prefer a neutral standards body.

"In HP's view of the world, we absolutely believe in driving industry standards," said Rick Becker, vice president and general manager of blades. "Throwing a spec up against the wall doesn't make a standard. In my opinion, this is an IBM push to extend their sales reach for their current product."

HP also balked at earlier moves by IBM to make BladeCenter a de facto standard.

Dell concurred. "Some independent working group would be great. We want to see this go through the traditional standard route," Dell spokeswoman Wendy Giever said.

Becker said some work is under way to create a neutral standard. "HP is eagerly addressing the industry trying to figure out how to drive the standardization," Becker said. He refused to share details of discussions, citing nondisclosure agreements.