A battle over setting standards for server technology is
getting fiercer by the day.
Intel is now accusing IBM, Compaq Computer, and Hewlett-Packard
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
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 NGIO standard proposed by Intel, or the Future I/O standard from the
triumvirate. Money and power issues hang in the balance.
While Intel executives have been complaining that the triumvirate will charge
royalties for its technology, sources report that the triumvirate now has
decided to charge only "nominal" royalties. In addition, sources say IBM has now raised this issue: Companies that
adopt the Intel technology could expose themselves to patent-infringement
liability because IBM developed and uses a similar technology in its high-end servers.
Royalties are an issue, but it appears now that the reason for the triumvirate's
plan is to gain a competitive edge. The plan would make it easier for IBM, Compaq, and Hewlett-Packard to make their investments in high-end
servers pay off in the increasingly important Intel-based systems.
Intel has allied with Sun Microsystems, Dell Computer, Hitachi, NEC, and Siemens to back Next-Generation Input
Output, or NGIO, while the IBM-Compaq-HP triumvirate has put its support
Future I/O. Both are technologically similar ways to
overcome weaknesses in power and robustness that afflict today's Peripheral
Component Interconnect (PCI) connection technology, which connects a
main processor with components such as network cards and storage systems.
NGIO is a free and open standard, developed and governed by the industry
with no royalty payments required, said Tom MacDonald, general manager for Intel's
NGIO division. "I challenge the other folks to make that claim," he said.
But one source familiar with Future I/O said it's not the aim of IBM, Compaq,
and HP to establish Future I/O as a "revenue stream." Instead, the advantage
comes because technology from IBM's S/390 computers could be easily migrated
into the increasingly important Intel-based servers, giving IBM and its Future
I/O partners a technological edge.
"Once Future I/O is a widely used standard, then it's a nice jumping-off point
to bring a lot of S/390 stuff...into the Wintel space," the source said.
"Future I/O plays into the strengths of the companies that already have a
in enterprise-level data centers."
In addition, Compaq's ServerNet technology, acquired when the company acquired
the high-end server manufacturer Tandem,
uses a similar "switched fabric" approach.
That technology could give IBM, Compaq, and HP an advantage over Dell, which
relies on the commodity hardware approach championed by Intel. Dell has been
repeating its desktop computing success with Intel-based servers, eating
into the market share earlier dominated by Compaq and HP.
"We view the NGIO architecture as a critically important innovation for the
future of the high-volume Intel-based server platform," Dell said in a
The race is on
The race between the two technologies is heating up, with companies
leapfrogging each other in the effort to establish their technologies.
Intel announced Tuesday that details on NGIO partners would emerge at its
Developer Forum in February. But the partnership announcement emerged
unexpectedly early when Intel declared the NGIO steering committee members
The Future I/O camp, meanwhile, hasn't stood still either, saying that details
on Future I/O would emerge at a developer's conference in Monterey,
in mid-February. Now, though, an announcement on Future I/O is scheduled for
Sun joins Intel
Sun backed NGIO because it's technologically superior to existing solutions,
it's an open and "unencumbered" standard, and because there aren't details on
Future I/O yet available, said Sun's Charles Andres in an interview today.
Intel announced yesterday that "a founding principle of the NGIO Industry
is that contributions to the core specification should be licensed on a mutual
"Sun is a champion of cross-platform, open standards. We try very hard to
create and endorse whatever I/O standards make sense," Andres said. "The NGIO
specification is a good start to a cross-platform standard."
It's not the first time Sun has lined up behind an Intel standard. Earlier in
the 1990s, Sun lined up behind the PCI specification, originally developed by
Intel. Although PCI offered similar performance to the Sun-developed S-bus
standard, the mass market chose to go with PCI, Andres said.
Asked if there are problems with patent infringement from adopting NGIO,
said: "I am not aware that there are patent issues at this point."
Intel would be shielded from patent-infringement liability by a long-standing
cross-licensing agreement between IBM and Intel, but that may not apply with
other companies, one source said. And although those companies could sign
patent cross-license agreements with IBM, the resulting royalties likely would
be more expensive than whatever will be charged to use Future I/O.
The NGIO-Future I/O divide isn't the first case where Compaq, HP, and IBM have
deviated from Intel's plans. In 1998, the three companies announced PCI-X, a
proposed extension to PCI bus originally developed by Intel. Intel wasn't
the PCI-X plan, but Intel now wholeheartedly embraces PCI-X.