IBM and Intel team on blade servers

IBM Corp. and Intel Corp. have decided to make blade servers together: The two companies announced a partnership Tuesday that could shake up the competitive landscape for some of the server world’s freshest technology.

IBM and Intel will share technology and development costs across every part of the their blade server designs, including the server hardware itself, the chassis, networking and management tools. IBM’s contributions will centre on planning the system architecture and management software, while Intel will add in its processor, chipset and sever board knowledge, the companies said.

With their combined computing muscle, the companies could begin to set standards in the young blade server space and challenge market leaders like Hewlett-Packard Co. and RLX Technologies Inc., according to an industry analyst.

“This is basically an intention between the two of them to come up with mutual standards for the blade form factor, chassis and network infrastructure,” said David Freund, a server technologies analyst at Illuminata Inc. of Nashua, N.H.

“One of the ramifications of that is that with the market size these two companies both command, especially with them working in concert, the likelihood of such standards then becoming standards in the marketplace is very real,” he said.

Hardware makers have turned to blade servers as a way to give their customers the most computing power possible in the least amount of space. The servers themselves are stripped down to only the essential components so that they can be tightly stacked in a chassis. The servers share networking and power connections through the backplane of the chassis, which cuts down on management headaches for administrators.

IBM has lagged behind some of its competitors with blade technology and sees the deal with Intel as a way to speed up its product rollout.

“This work with Intel will accelerate what we are able to do, especially as we go forward,” said Tim Dougherty, director of IBM’s blade server strategy.

IBM, of Armonk, N.Y., had already been working on its own blade products and will release a system in the third quarter based on the 2.4GHz Xeon chip from Intel. While this first system is largely based on IBM’s own technology, future servers will roll out at a quicker clip as a result of the partnership, Dougherty said.

Intel, of Santa Clara, Calif., already supplies chips to a wide variety of blade vendors, including RLX and HP, but the company saw the potential for a union with IBM based on the two companies’ vision of the applications that will run on blades.

“From an Intel perspective, we looked at the emerging category of blade servers and what was interesting to us was that the new applications and deployment of blade servers are in the mid-tier of the enterprise,” said Phil Brace, marketing director in Intel’s enterprise systems and platforms group.

Both companies expect blade servers to handle applications such as Microsoft Corp.’s Exchange and some e-business software from the likes of SAP AG.

Like IBM, HP decided to go with more powerful processors for its blade systems to help make the servers more suited for running demanding e-business software. Picking faster, and consequently hotter, chips limits how tightly blades can be crammed together, however.

RLX has picked lower power processors from both Intel and Transmeta Corp. to let it make some of the densest blade server designs around. The jam-packed RLX systems have attracted customers in the scientific and technical computing areas where lots of processing power in a small space is appreciated.

The partnership between IBM and Intel could erode some of the differentiation among blade server vendors, Illuminata’s Freund said. By partnering with Intel, IBM is sending a signal that it wants to sell lots of blades and sell them cheap.

“This deal begs the question of why IBM would help drive the commoditization of this fledgling market,” Freund said. “Apparently, the answer is that IBM decided that such a commoditization is not only inevitable but also desirable.”

If blade servers are similar in price to current thin rack servers, hardware makers will find it difficult to differentiate themselves with system design only. The biggest selling point for the vendors will be the quality of their management software, Freund said.

“With this kind of commoditization, the differentiator for the vendors will focus on their management software and how well it handles things like application deployment and optimization,” he said.

IBM plans to build its own management software for its blade systems and sees this area as one way to separate from the herd.

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