Standards body or boondoggle? Standards body or boondoggle?

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


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 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 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. 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 to something, that something would be Sun's Java Community Process (JCP).  Like the JCP, centers on a technology that can serve as the basis for an ecosystem.   Also like the JCP, 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 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 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. is IBM’s slow response to our Solution Builder. It’s modeled after our program but less comprehensive. 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 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 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).

Topic: IBM

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  • Boondoogle!

    Great marketing. But still a boondoogle.

    They are actually running the risk of over-playing this ridiculous "We're the standard!" message.

    Last I checked, the IT world is full of some pretty smart folks and they're not big on "marketing fluff". They know what standards are and how they are created.

    Granted, customers want more standards in blades - but trying to sell a proprietary design wrapped in a standard messages is going to back-fire on IBM.

    HP may only have 274 licensees and 11 3rd party products vs. IBM's 280 and 12 - but at least HP doesn't think their customers are stupid.

    Quote - "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."

    What's wrong with working together with partners to create solutions for customers? And is IBM actually implying the "Bobs-budget-networking" and "Cisco" are on equal footing their eyes?

    Boy, they really do think we're stupid.
  • What about the hardware?

    The cooling and power requirements for blades differ depending on the processor and other hardware installed in each blade, regardless of blade form.

    Attempting to standardise blade form is a pipedream - try running a mixture of SPARC blades (if you can still get them!) in the same Sun chassis as Intel blades. You'll find that certain mixtures of the two will cause overheating of the system. Sun's old x86 blade (B100x) ran far hotter than its SPARC equivalent (B100s).

    So you can sign up to use IBM's form, but then you're constrained by the cooling limitations of that design, thus constraining development of faster and more diverse blades.

    Let the market mature a little more and then there is more from what you can choose as a good standard.
  • SPOF

    The BladeCenter becomes the proverbial Single Point of Failure in the system. This means that SOMEONE has to take responsibility for that situation. Would you "trust" some white-box manu to make a high-quality, highly available blade center?

    Why not just throw away the "box" and just create "servers" that are nothing more than a big motherboard of slots? Add-on cards would be the equivilent of "blades", but cooling could be handled MUCH more cleanly. Get rid of the box, and let your components FREE!
    Roger Ramjet

    With IBM, the day of Blades
    Might finally have arisen;
    Where those who dare to go beyond
    Might well end up some day in prison;
    A prison of the the alien mind
    Whose standards,so confining,
    Might one day crunch up
    On their Apple Corps,
    Eatin' haggis and repining.
    With frre and open access,
    Folks'll rally to their banner-
    Does this smell like Standardizing?
    Might be time now to meander!
  • Arguements are misleading and shortsighted

    Several of the assertions seem misleading and shortsighted as well.

    All IBM is saying is that they are not licensing the chasis, the switch moduel....etc. There is nothing to prevent the companies from designing their own chasis components...

    All IBM is saying is that a license cannot be given or sold to another company (ie intellectual property). It's a fairly standard clause in the computer industry.
  • Dell & HP carping

    HP and Dell are carping because IBM is so far ahead, both in terms of technology are marketshare..

    IBM's Bladecenter has widest selection of blades of any companies. IBM outstrips the competition by leaps and bounds with their processor technology.

    HP and Dell and particular is showing the limitations of x86 technology. I am quite amazed that Dell has been so reluctant to use the AMD chips. They must be getting quite a discount from Intel.

    HP & Dell are under quite a bit of pressure from IBM so they are obviously upset.
  • RE: Standards body or boondoggle?

    Well for people who want to see how Dell & IBM & HP compare should check out the below comparisons:

    as well on the site you can find many comparisons with SUN Blade as well. I believe it might help a lot of interested people in here to judge between the many blades offering hitting the market today.


    MS Right :)