Blade.org: Standards body or boondoggle?

Summary:IBM is talking up a new consortium that it has established called Blade.org.

IBM is talking up a new consortium that it has established called Blade.orgNo top level domain (not .com, .net, etc.)  packs the double-entendre that ".org" does when it's tacked on to the name of a technology (in this case "blade") that has been begging for a interoperable standard to emerge.   Today, blade technologies -- the kind where system vendors like Dell, HP, and IBM pack and entire system on to a circuit board that slides into a matching chassis -- are extremely proprietary.  You cannot, for example, take a blade that's designed to work inside of HP's blade chassis and slide it into a chassis from IBM or Dell. 

If the equivalent lack of standards still existed today for desktops and notebooks (there once was a time....), expansion boards and PC Cards that you buy for one desktop or notebook (respectively speaking) might very likely not work in another.  Remember the days when a new system could have an ISA, EISA, MicroChannel, or PCI bus in it? (or the days when some systems had both?).   So, when you first see the domain name and web site blade.org and hear that a consortium is associated with it, the first thing that pops to mind is that the day of blade standards may have finally arrived.

Well, not quite.

While blade.org may not be a boondoggle (in other words it could turn out to be one because it's not guaranteed to succeed), it is also by no means ready to be considered a standards consortium by any stretch of the imagination.  Blade.org is the brainchild of IBM -- a company that with its BladeCenter chassis and blades to match (some from third parties like Brocade, discussed here), stands a lot to gain should its BladeCenter architecture mature into an industry-wide de facto standard for blades.  To get there, IBM has basically pushed its proprietary architecture just outside the corporate licensing firewall where it will be a bit easier for third parties to make products that live off the BladeCenter ecosystem.  According to IBM's BladeCenter director Tim Dougherty, whereas IBM and other blade vendors have been working with third parties in one-off deals that required a lot of handholding and implementation-specific dealings (licensing, documentation, technical assistance, etc.), IBM has decided to publish enough about the intellectual property belonging to it and to Intel so that third parties can manufacture compliant blades, switches, and connector host bust adapters with much less involvment from Big Blue. 

Although the royalty-free license that third parties must sign is available for download from IBM's web site and IBM refers to the specification as one that's "open," the license is not completely unencumbered.  For example, unlike with open source where a signed license needn't been filed with the licensor, such privity is required in the case of IBM's General Blade Technology License Agreement (I'll call it BTLA for short).  Generally speaking, technology licensors require privity when licenses are not freely transferable (to other parties) and/or when licensees must agree to restrictions or provisions that deal with the scope of the license.  In this case, the BTLA is indeed non-transferable and the scope of the license is limited.  For example, third parties are prevented from building chassis that comply with the specification.  According to the license, licensees are granted "a worldwide, non-exclusive, non-transferable, royalty free and revocable.... right to use the Specification for the limited purpose of designing and manufacturing Licensed Products."  The BTLA defines "Licensed Products as the following:

"Licensed Product" shall mean a Blade (including, but not limited to a General Purpose Blade, a Fixed Function Blade, and a Communications Blade), a Switch Module, and a Blade Daughter Card.  Licensed Products do not include Management Modules, Chassis, Cooling Fans, Power Supplies or any other cards, modules or products, except those explicitly set forth in the previous sentence.  However, by written notice to Licensee signed by an authorized representative of Licensors, the Licensors may amend this Section 1.11 "Licensed Products" to expand the types of cards, modules, and products that are included in the definition of Licensed Products, as well as to amend the definitions of any card, module, and product that has been added to the definition of Licensed Products. 

In essence, although even it isn't wide-open, IBM is opening up one side of the specification more than it was before while leaving the other side (the chassis side) closed.  What this means is that when IT buyers purchase a BladeCenter-compliant product from a BTLA licensee, they'll still need the chassis and other accoutrements like management modules, fans, and power supplies that licensees are prevented from making.  The difference between this arrangement and the way things were before, according to Dougherty, is that IBM has prepared and packaged up everything a licensee needs (technical specs, implementation details, etc.) to build a product without having to engage IBM to structure the deal or get engineering assistance.  That said, Dougherty says that if company's are interested in getting IBM's assistance on the engineering front, he'd welcome the business.

In looking around the industry, if I had to compare blade.org to something, that something would be Sun's Java Community Process (JCP).  Like the JCP, blade.org centers on a technology that can serve as the basis for an ecosystem.   Also like the JCP, blade.org already has board members (nine to be exact: Intel, IBM, Citrix, Novell, VMWare, Cisco, Nortel, Brocade and NetApp).  Not only will the organization will have it's own by-laws, but presumably, much the same way members of the JCP take on the role of evolving the various specifications and building compliance test suites for Sun's Java, the members of blade.org will do the same for IBM's BladeCenter.  Whereas Sun makes money on the testing and licensing of the Java trademark, IBM will make it's money on the sale of the chassis and supporting hardware.  As of the publishing of this blog entry, IBM had not yet gotten back to me with answer to my question of whether or not there might be charges for compliance testing or licensing of the Bladecenter tradmark.

All this said, whether or not the BladeCenter ecosystem can thrive the way the JCP does today remains to be seen.  IBM's chief competitors HP and Dell are characterizing blade.org as a non-starter.  In an interview last week with ZDNet editor-in-chief Dan Farber, HP BladeSystem Division vice president and general manager Rick Becker said:

We have a partner program--Blade Systems Solution Builder—for IHVs, ISVs resellers, and channel partners. It enables an entire ecosystem to collaborate and leverage each other. Blade.org is IBM’s slow response to our Solution Builder. It’s modeled after our program but less comprehensive. Blades.org is going out to switch vendors and IBM partners, like Netapp, but no other players. The same switch vendors support us as well. I have a spec I share and IBM does. I have an ecosystem, and IBM created a typical partner program.

Dougherty however suggested otherwise, saying that so far, IBM has 280 licensees and that there are 12 third party products in the marketplace with more on the way.   But Dell's PowerEdge Server director of marketing Tim Golden was equally dismissive of blade.org saying:

In order for something to be a standard, there must be free and open access to information and intellectual property. Although IBM's announcement of Blade.org may seem like a move towards standardization in the blade market, it is centered soley around the adoption of IBM's proprietary BladeCenter technology and not a push for adoption of true industry standard components and collaboration.

Golden went on to say that customers would rather buy a standard than not but that Dell couldn't do anything about it at this time -- an indication that among the Tier 1 players, there is little desire nor is there enough customer outrage to motivate the industry towards a truly open standard.  In other words, if you IT buyers out there want a real open standard for blades, you'll need to take matters into your own hands (if you know what I mean).

Topics: IBM

About

David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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