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Server alliance reflects Intel rift

Server heavyweights Compaq, IBM, and Hewlett-Packard form a technology alliance, but Intel is not inside.

Compaq, IBM, and Hewlett-Packard announced today that they have formed a server technology alliance which highlights a falling out with Intel in this critical area.

Compaq along with Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and Adaptec, announced an "open" alliance that will define standards for handling data inside powerful server computers. This technology is generically referred to as I/O, or input/output.

The companies said the "Future I/O" technology will create a new I/O standard for "data transfer between high-performance servers and peripheral subsystems for the next generation of high-performance systems."

This occurs against a backdrop of increasing acrimony between Intel and the alliance members.

As reported earlier, Intel is accusing Compaq, HP, and IBM of trying to extract royalties with a proprietary standard, and the triumvirate is countering that the Intel standard could infringe on IBM and Compaq patents and expose Intel's allies to liability.

The debate rages over which system for data input-output in servers will be chosen as the industry standard for machines coming to market after 2000: the Next Generation Input/Output (NGIO) technology standard proposed by Intel, or the alliance?s proposal. Intel has allied with Sun Microsystems, Dell Computer, Hitachi, NEC, and Siemens to back its standard.

The race to set the standard has serious implications for Intel and the alliance alike, since sever performance is closely tied to I/O, which constitutes the foundation of any server architecture.

Intel has been active in this area and has for many years sold a high-performance I/O subsystem designed around its i960 chips, in addition to its Xeon design and earlier Pentium Pro microprocessor architecture.

On the other hand, server makers, such as those in the alliance, have complained about a lack of input into the standards-setting process. They believe that their standard will offer more opportunity to differentiate their products from the competition, especially from companies that do relatively limited internal research and development in this area, such as Dell, which tends to be tied more closely to Intel technologies.

Compaq, HP, and IBM made this crystal clear in a statement today. "The Future I/O standard builds on the decades of collective knowledge and experience possessed by the high-performance computing companies involved in the alliance," the companies said in a statement.

Intel, on the other hand, will trumpet its NGIO technology ever-louder as 1999 progresses, said John Miner, general manager of Intel's Enterprise Server Group earlier. Intel will disclose its NGIO partners at the Intel Developer's Forum, which begins February 22.

One thing the two camps do agree on: Both are pushing a variation of the "switched fabric" design for the new technologies. 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.

Intel has invited HP, IBM, and Compaq to join its NGIO effort. But one source said IBM, Compaq, and HP believe there are technical problems with Intel?s NGIO.

The alliance is also promoting a standard called PCI-X, which extends the venerable PCI architecture, the bus design used in almost all PCs today.

"There is a compelling need to build on existing PCI and PCI-X systems and develop a new I/O specification that can deliver scalable performance improvements, while protecting the IT investments of customers," said Karl Walker, vice president of technology development at Compaq Computer Corporation.

Some of the new areas of improvement of Future I/O include:

  • Easier and more regular performance enhancements.

  • Better fault tolerance and fault isolation, leading to increases in overall system reliability.

  • More scalable and balanced systems.

    3Com and LSI Logic will also participate.

    "3Com is working with the Future I/O group to ensure that the next generation of servers have high-performance, highly-reliable channel architecture," Tom Werner, vice president and general manager of 3Com's LAN connectivity division, said in a prepared statement.

    "LSI Logic is very excited about participating with other leaders of the enterprise server market to develop the next generation systems interconnect," said Harry Mason, Strategic Alliance Director at LSI Logic.

    Heavyweights duke it out
    One of the reasons for the rift is that Compaq, HP, and IBM believe that chip manufacturer Intel isn't the right company to lead the development of a new server technology standard, and worse, the Intel-led effort is flawed at its roots.

    At the heart of their competing effort are several complaints: Server architecture design should be left to server companies, the creation of a new specification shouldn't be dominated by one player, and Intel's plan for unrestrained sharing of intellectual property stifles companies from pursing new ideas.

    Hogwash, says Intel.

    Intel argues that the three companies are banking on the out-of-date "vertical" market philosophy, in which one company designs an entire system instead of having a more open design for which many companies design components.

    "I remain confident that the fundamental business and technology direction for NGIO is sound, and that in the end those business and technology values will prove themselves. The industry will encourage them to join us, and I hope it's sooner rather than later," said Tom MacDonald, general manager for Intel's NGIO standard effort.

    Both groups plan to make more details on partnerships and technological details available at separate developer conferences in February.

    Although both camps grouse that the other side hasn't released enough information on its standard to permit a careful evaluation, there are more issues than just the technical merits involved. "We think this is primarily a business issue," said MacDonald.

    For one thing, there's intellectual property--the research and patents all the companies have invested over the years in server technology. Intel announced last week that NGIO contributions "should be licensed on a mutual royalty-free basis."

    "If standards are set without regard for intellectual property, it does tend to suppress innovation," said Tom Bradicich, director of IBM's server architecture and technology at IBM. IBM, Compaq, and HP all have servers using switched-fabric architectures, the system used both in NGIO and Future I/O. In addition, IBM and Compaq both have patents in the area.

    "We're trying to leverage a lot of research and development work that we have been doing for decades," said Martin Whittaker, research and development for HP's enterprise NetServer division.

    But the way Intel sees it is that "a few companies with significant [market] share are trying to change the rules to favor themselves," advocating proprietary technologies in a philosophy dating from an earlier era of computing. Intel says it favors a more open approach. "Standards lead to volume economics, which lead to larger markets, which lead to lower costs, which stimulate growth in the industry," MacDonald said.

    The server companies, though, say they're simply trying to set up a solid standard that will last for years, not just the latest sampling from the "spec-of-the-month club."

    Licensing another issue
    Another bone of contention is the licensing of the technology. Intel says its technology will have no license fees but that the Future I/O alliance companies will charge royalties. But the Future I/O alliance members say they're not financially driven by royalties for the standard--that strategy would be "self-defeating in promoting an open standard," said Bradicich. In fact, Compaq's Walker said, the Future I/O group has not fully decided on whether to charge royalties.

    Future I/O supporters want to establish "an open industry initiative that recognizes the input from multiple vendors with reasonable and nondiscriminatory licensing terms that are very similar to those in many other standards," HP's Whittaker said.

    Another hitch is "governance"--the details of how the standard is set and who controls it.

    "With NGIO, Intel is the single point of control," said Walker. "If any one company is holder and controller of that specification, at the end of they day, they have ultimate veto power of what goes in and doesn't go in."

    Hogwash, MacDonald responded. The five other companies on the NGIO steering committee each have equal power, and the future of the spec will be determined with a one-company, one-vote system.