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Don't hold your breath for blade standards

HP and IBM have tried it but nobody else seems to be interested. There is no hope for a blade server standard in the near future

If you're looking to buy blade servers but are worried by the lack of an industry-wide standard that would allow you to plug blades from one manufacturer into chassis made by another, you could be in for a long wait.

HP and IBM have both made attempts to establish their own technologies as a de facto industry standard, but the reality is that a true standard is still many years out, according to other blade server makers and analysts.

RLX Technologies, the company that kick-started the blade server market, sees talk of standards as nothing more than a marketing gimmick. Bob VanSteenberg chief technology officer and vice president of platform development at RLX, says: "IBM, Dell and HP all like to do the same 'ours is the standard' thing."

HP's attempt to set a standard two years ago based on its blade server specification was roundly snubbed by the industry. The specifications that IBM has touted with the help of Intel as a standard mean that any company can manufacturer a blade that will fit into its chassis, but the chassis itself – a relatively low-tech box – remains closed.

Although many software and networking companies have signed up to produce application-specific blades for the IBM chassis, other server makers are unlikely to manufacture blades that will fit in the chassis.

The reason, says Martin Hingley, vice-president of the European Systems Group at analyst firm IDC, is that the server makers need to recover the margins they have lost in recent years to chipmakers Intel and AMD. "We think the margins on traditional servers are too narrow.
Blades are a way to win back the design, and that is good for the vendors because they need more margin."

"Users have been saying more for less," adds Hingley. "Well we have given them a lot more for less in the hardware market; now it is the software companies' time to do the same."

Hingley's colleague, senior research analyst Daniel Fleischer, believes that if standards are coming, they are still a long way out. "So far we have seen a lot of vendors investing heavily in their own platforms," he says. "In the short term, considering the investment they have made, standards don't make sense." The issue is that the server makers need to recoup their investments, and standards won't help that endeavour.

For Dell's part, the company says its users simply don't want standards yet because responsibility for fixing faults may not always be immediately obvious. Some problems, says Neil Hand, director for worldwide systems marketing and product management, could be perceived as being in the blade or the chassis, and in that instance, "Is it Dell's problem, or IBM's?"

In the longer term, he said, there may be more opportunity. "But you look back at the development of rack-based servers and there have been many form factors before we reached the 19 inch standard, but in a rack you have a complete system that is completely self-contained."
Part of the point of blade servers, he said, is to remove some components such as power and cooling, from the individual servers.

With HP and IBM each pushing their own standards, and Dell and RLX seemingly not interested in either -- or any -- there does indeed seem to be no prospect of a true blade server standard in the near future. And that means no truly low prices either. As RLX's VanSteenberg says: "Blades won't commoditise until they standardise."

For more on blades see: Can blade servers save you money?