Server technology battle heats up

Intel is now accusing a group of computing heavyweights of trying to extract royalties with a proprietary standard for connecting computer chips and components.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
4 min read
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 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 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 behind 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 computer's 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 voice 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 statement.

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 Intel Developer Forum in February. But the partnership announcement emerged unexpectedly early when Intel declared the NGIO steering committee members yesterday.

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, California, in mid-February. Now, though, an announcement on Future I/O is scheduled for Tuesday.

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 Forum is that contributions to the core specification should be licensed on a mutual royalty-free basis."

"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, Andres 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 in on the PCI-X plan, but Intel now wholeheartedly embraces PCI-X.