Vendors to converge I/O specs

Trying to head off a war before it gets started, Compaq Computer Corp. and Intel Corp. are looking to cooperate rather than compete on a future server I/O specification.

The firms are working on separate standards — Intel’s Next Generation I/O (NGIO) and Compaq’s Future I/O — that promise to increase server performance and scalability over today’s bus-based systems.

At two industry meetings last month, the companies said they have started talking to each other to develop a single specification.

The joint specification would allow vendors to develop products conforming to a single standard, which would greatly simplify user purchasing decisions. The efforts of Intel and Compaq are aimed at eliminating the bottleneck and performance problems of current bus-based servers.

In the past, I/O bus wars over divergent specifications, such as the Micro Channel and EISA specifications, have stymied the market and led to user uncertainty over which bus architecture to adopt.

Reportedly, e-mail is being exchanged among Intel CEO Craig Barrett, Compaq CEO Eckhard Pfeiffer and Hewlett-Packard CEO Lou Platt to attempt to resolve differences.

“Let’s get the right answer for the customer,” said Karl Walker, vice-president of technology development at Compaq. “There are areas where companies choose to compete and there are areas where agreement is better for everybody — we can make the pie bigger if we all agree on one thing.”

Walt Thirion, chief technology officer for Level One Communications of Sacramento, Calif., remembers the Micro Channel-EISA bus wars and does not want them repeated.

He, like others, suspects there are not major technological differences keeping Intel and Compaq apart, but rather fine technical details.

Many vendors are in a wait-and-see mode, unwilling to join either camp. And unless vendors sign nondisclosure agreements, they are unable to take detailed looks at either specification.

Intel’s NGIO specification defines a switched fabric that ensures that each processor and adapter board shares a direct connection. This is different than today’s PCI architecture, in which each processor and card share resources with other cards and processors.

The specification is supported by Dell, Siemens, Hitachi, NEC and Sun.

Intel claims NGIO reduces single points of failure and increases the allowable distances between a CPU and attached devices. According to Intel, NGIO also will support a higher number of devices than Compaq’s Future I/O specification.

Future I/O is backed by HP, IBM, 3Com, Mylex and Adaptec.

Like NGIO, the Future I/O specification defines a switched fabric. But unlike NGIO, Future I/O is compatible with existing PCI products and allows an easier migration path for users, Compaq claims.