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Server war looms for Intel

IBM, Compaq, and Hewlett-Packard will face off against the chip giant next month in a dispute that will define the way a chip communicates with components.

A battle between major computing companies is brewing over who has the best technology for allowing computer processors and components to communicate with each other.

IBM, Compaq, and Hewlett-Packard will face off against Intel next month in the dispute, which will define the future specifications for the technology.

The race to set the standard will have far reaching implications, say observers. Research-intensive server makers, who have complained about a lack of input into the standards-setting process, believe that their standard will offer more opportunity to differentiate their products from the competition, especially from companies that are light on R&D, such as Dell Computer. In addition, the server vendors potentially will be able to gain royalties if their spec is adopted. As stated earlier by one IBM executive, the companies want an environment where "you get a return on your investment."

Intel, on the other hand, will trumpet its Next Generation Input/Output (NGIO) technology ever-louder as 1999 progresses, said John Miner, general manager of Intel's Enterprise Server Group, speaking at a press briefing today. Intel will disclose its NGIO partners at the Intel Developer's Forum, which begins February 22.

But the IBM-Compaq-HP triumvirate is proceeding down a different track, developing a similar technology called Future I/O. These companies plan to disclose more details on Future I/O at their own developer's conference in February, sources said.

Both the NGIO and Future I/O technologies govern how disk arrays, network cards, and other components plug into servers, replacing the Peripheral Component Interconnect (PCI) technology used today. Servers will be able to benefit from faster throughput and greater robustness, but some industry observers expect it eventually will trickle down to more mainstream computers.

Future I/O and NGIO are "switched fabric" designs, which means that a switch temporarily opens a communication channel between the computer chip and a device such as a network card. In "bus" designs such as PCI, information is sent down a data pathway shared by several devices.

The two camps do seem to agree that switched fabric is the way to go. IBM uses a switched fabric design in its heavy-duty S/390 servers, and Intel seems to agree, arguing that switched fabric designs isolate the brains of the computer from problems in peripherals. In addition, Miner said, NGIO will provide the ability to plug more devices into a computer and offer more bandwidth than existing I/O designs.

Intel has invited HP, IBM, and Compaq--three of the biggest server makers that use Intel chips--to join its NGIO effort. "We would love to have them participate and contribute and would love to get them involved," Miner said.

But one source said IBM, Compaq, and HP believe there are technical problems with NGIO that mean it's not robust enough and doesn't have a long enough life span.

Intel expects NGIO to debut in 2000.

The NGIO-Future I/O schism isn't the first time Compaq, HP, and IBM have deviated from Intel's plans. Last year, the three companies announced the PCI-X, a proposed extension to PCI bus. Intel wasn't in on the plan, but Miner says Intel now wholeheartedly embraces PCI-X. "We're very engaged in the PCI-X process," Miner said today.

Although Intel now is leading the NGIO effort, the specification ultimately will be developed and governed by other companies in the industry as well, Miner said. NGIO will be an "open, royalty-free" specification, he said.

3Com, which makes network adapters and other equipment that plug into computers, is a strong supporter of the Future I/O technology, said 3Com spokesman Brian Johnson. "We will definitely be at the developer's conference" on Future I/O, he said.

"What we believe without a doubt is that the people who have fundamentally invented personal computing"--companies such as Compaq, IBM, and HP--"have the closest and deepest and best understanding of how computers work. They're the ones that have the direct touch. They're a hell of a lot smarter than Intel regarding customer requirements," Johnson said.

"Intel wants to spread like kudzu around the inside of the computer," Johnson said, and indeed Intel has said that it plans to build the chips that will make NGIO work.

3Com, though, would like to get a piece of the switched fabric pie, too. 3Com has experience in high-speed network technologies such as Gigabit Ethernet, Johnson said, and switched fabric is similar in some ways to putting a network inside a computer. 3Com would make switched fabric hardware as well as the components that plug into it, he said.

And while 3Com strongly supports Future I/O, the company will also support NGIO technology, Johnson said, noting that 3Com supported IBM's proprietary Microchannel bus architecture.