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Rival server camps still at odds

New disagreements have chilled a warming trend between two groups competing to establish the architecture for the next generation of servers.

New disagreements have chilled a warming trend between two groups competing to establish the architecture for the next generation of servers, a breakdown that will likely irk corporate buyers who have been asking for a resolution on the issue.

The dispute, which pits Intel against some of its major chip customers, centers on competing proposals for connecting devices such as disk drives or network cards inside the next generation of servers.

On one side, Intel, Sun, Dell Computer, Siemens, Hitachi, and NEC back a proposal called Next-Generation Input/Output (NGIO). On the other side are the backers of Future I/O: Hewlett-Packard, Compaq Computer, IBM, Adaptec, and 3Com--three of the largest Intel-based server makers and two major adapter vendors.

The Future I/O group is pushing a standard that is too technologically complex, say NGIO advocates. But that is also the point. A more robust architecture will allow server vendors to innovate on the basic server design, a factor which is currently lacking in the Intel server world. The more complex standard would also favor R&D heavy vendors such as IBM and Compaq.

The standards dispute has been going on for months, but now it appears the issue will be settled in the marketplace instead of in behind-the-scenes negotiations. That's a downer for corporate computer personnel who must decide to back one standard or the other--or to wait months or years until it's clear which will prevail.

"The channels for dialogue do remain open. However, I do not see us merging at this time," said Tom Bradicich, director of IBM's Netfinity server architecture and technology group.

The warring factions had achieved a measure of detente in recent months. Among other points, the two groups resolved sticking points stemming from concerns over intellectual property rights and who exactly controls the specification.

Both sides say the lines of communication still are open, but that plans for both Future I/O and NGIO are going ahead.

Intel spokesman Bill Kircos added that the companies will continue to talk and that the goal is for a single specification, but that the Intel group continues plans to have NGIO specification finished by the first half of 1999.

Intel executives have said that the pursuit of a common standard would satisfy customer demands. "We continue to have lots of discussions and continue to work toward a common goal," said John Miner, general manager of the Enterprise server group at Intel, in February. "Customers would like us to all get together and have a single specification." Though Future I/O and NGIO are architecturally similar systems, the present disagreement has some technological issues at its core.

Sources familiar with the negotiations say the Future I/O camp is finding the NGIO camp inflexible on some "non-negotiable" technological points.

Intel, for its part, believes Future I/O is aiming too high. "It seemed like very high-speed, very high-end niche technology," Kircos said. On the other hand, "NGIO is modular. It can address the high end, but also low-end to mid-range servers as well."

Companies wanting to change the NGIO specification are welcome to join the NGIO Industry Forum, Kircos said. IBM, Compaq, and HP aren't members.

Future I/O remains undeterred. "The industry momentum behind Future I/O will compel them to merge," said one Future I/O advocate. As evidence of this strategy's success, the source pointed to the HP-IBM-Compaq triumvirate's success in extending the current PCI I/O technology one more generation and getting Intel to join the effort.

One issue separating the two camps in the past was the treatment of intellectual property rights, but both sides have reached common ground through compromises by both sides. In addition, the camps agreed on how to govern the spec, using a one-member, one-vote method.

Meanwhile, both camps continue to plan the future for the dueling specifications.

The NGIO specification will be finished by the first half of 1999, with products shipping mid-2000, Kircos said.

The Future I/O specification will done by the end of 1999, with prototype technologies shipping in the second half of 2000 and products in mid-2001. Another Future I/O technical meeting is scheduled to take place in May or June.