IBM, Intel serve up a taste of blade specs

In a move analysts are calling a bid to become the standard, IBM and Intel Corp. have opened up some of the specifications surrounding the IBM eServer BladeCenter.

The two vendors developed the blade server technology jointly and will make the specification for switches, adapter cards, appliances

and communications blades available to third-party vendors — royalty free. The other pieces of the system, including the chassis specification, won’t be opened. Third-party vendors will still have to sign a licence agreement, but will no longer have to go through the lengthy process of working out a contract with IBM, says Tim Dougherty, the director of IBM eServer BladeCenter marketing in Somers, N.Y.

IBM hopes to encourage other vendors to create appliances, such as intrusion detection systems, that fit into its BladeCenter, he says.

“”So the idea is to let people create those blades and let them plug into the IBM BladeCenter.””

Companies can download the specs from IBM’s Web site once they’ve signed the agreement. They can also ask questions of IBM’s

engineering and technical services team free of charge or get additional help on a for-fee basis.

IBM hopes opening up the specs will drive down costs, Dougherty says. “”We believe that moving to what we call industry-standard devices like our blades, using Intel Chips, that you can dramatically lower the cost.””

But analysts say the move is far from creating an industry standard.

“”It’s not a standard,”” says Joyce Becknell, research director of analyst firm The Sageza Group Inc. in Milan, Italy. “”IBM and Intel would like to make that the standard.””

John Enck, research vice-president at Gartner Inc. in Loveland, Colo., agrees.

“”This is a good marketing move for them,”” he says. “”It’s a good thing they’ve done in terms of publishing their interface, in terms of making it available on a royalty-free basis, but it’s still a licenced product, and it is still proprietary to Intel (and IBM).””

There are currently no industry standards, and that can present a problem for end users, he says. “”It’s a real deployment blocker.””

Customers want to see standar dization before they whole-heartedly embrace blade servers, says Alan Freedman, research manager of infrastructure hardware at IDC Canada in Toronto. They want to make sure they will be able to plug in blades from one vendor into an enclosure from another.

“”They don’t want to be locked in and held captive by one vendor,”” Freedman says.

IBM’s move was not intended to create a standard, but to open up its spec, Big Blue’s Dougherty says.

“”This isn’t about standards. This is about opening the specification to allow people to build additional solutions for our blade customers. I think people confuse open and standard — they’re very different things.””

Customers aren’t looking for standards, Dougherty says.

“”Most of our customers are not interested in putting somebody else’s blade into, for instance, the IBM chassis because if they have a problem, who do they call? Now, that could change over time.””

If it does change, IBM will readily sit down with its competition to work out a standard, as it has done in the past, Dougherty says.

C.O.R.E. Features Animation in Toronto recently deployed a supercomputer using an IBM blade server farm. It doesn’t need the ability to plug third-party blades into its centre, says Tom Burns, the company’s director of special projects. But others might want the flexibility, he adds.

“”We don’t require that more corporate approach of mix and match components. But I can see enterprise server rooms might very well like the opportunity to mix and match blades from different manufacturers in the same chassis.””

Partly because the standards don’t yet exist, Enck says he’s guarded about recommending blade servers to his customers.

Blades aren’t proven as a cost-effective, across-the-board replacement of rack-based servers, he says. They are currently only effective in some narrow-usage models, such as Web serving and terminal serving, and that’s the way it will remain for a while, Enck says.

Blades are a vendor-pushed technology, he says. “”Clients weren’t sitting around asking for this.””

The blade market is still small, Freedman says. In Q2 of 2004, 1,800 blades were sold in Canada. IBM was leading the market with 37 per cent, followed by Hewlett-Packard Canada Co. at 31 per cent, RLX Technologies Inc. at 11.5 per cent and Sun Microsystems Inc. at six per cent, according to IDC.

Because the market is still so small, customers aren’t calling for standardization yet, Becknell says.

“”At this point, the market is young enough that people haven’t made enough (of an) investment that it’s an issue where they could save money. IBM and Intel are trying to solve the problem before it happens. So it’s forward-thinking on their part to try to make this into a commodity.””

HP says it offers investment protection to its blade customers. “”Our blades are completely consistent with our DL and ML (ProLiant server) systems,”” says James Mack, HP Canada’s category business manager in Mississauga, Ont., adding this shows HP is committed to standards across its server lines.

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