Hewlett-Packard has been snubbed by other server manufacturers in its call for a standard for blade servers that would let buyers mix and match blades -- the cards that hold the processors.
HP's call was backed up by market research firm Dataquest, which said that although blade server shipments will increase more than tenfold by 2006, a common standard is essential if buyers are to feel comfortable investing in them. But other server manufacturers believe HP is banking on the wrong technology.
Blade servers are more economical than conventional servers because they share power supplies, expansion cards and other electronics -- even the case. A single rack-mounted case can typically house dozens of individual server motherboards -- or blades -- each with its own storage. Economies of scale also reduce the amount of power consumed, and the amount of space needed to house large numbers of servers.
IBM, Compaq and Hewlett-Packard have all launched or are planning to launch blade servers, hoping to take advantage of the growing interest from buyers. But despite the strong growth predicted for the market, a lack of standards will put off any many potential buyers, according to Dataquest. The firm predicts that although one million blade servers will ship by 2006, only 84,000 servers will ship in 2002.
So far, each major server manufacturer is using different card formats and different backplanes, meaning that blades from one manufacturer will not fit into servers from another.
"A lack of standards will be a primary market inhibitor as many end users will be reluctant to install a blade server that appears to be proprietary," Jeffrey Hewitt, principal analyst covering servers for Gartner Dataquest's Computing Platform group. "This restriction on blade server demand will encourage the development of a standard designed specifically for blade servers to which the worldwide server vendors adhere. The acceptance of such a standard should help reduce end-user inhibition to install blade servers."
On Tuesday, HP launched its OpenBlade specification in an attempt to convince buyers of its open-standards approach. While admitting that OpenBlade is little more than a marketing term for CompactPCI -- the industry standard backplane that HP uses in its blade servers -- the company insists it is not just talk. "From a technical perspective OpenBlade is CompactPCI -- let's not pretend different," said Chris Franklin, HP's enterprise server marketing manager for the UK. "But the idea of OpenBlade is taking CompactPCI and putting our momentum behind it -- we're trying to drive uptake of the CompactPCI standard."
However, HP has been unable to convince any of the other big server manufacturers to sign up. Indeed, in an unusual show of unity, the rest of the industry is roundly ignoring HP's call to standardise on CompactPCI.
IBM and Compaq have both rejected the standard, saying that it was developed by and for the telco industry, and is too power hungry, too big and too slow for mainstream servers.
Compaq is using home-grown blade technology. Ian Stephen, industry standard server group business manager at Compaq UK, said he does not expect to see widespread standards for blade servers for two or three years yet. "It might happen once buyers become more comfortable with the technology," he said, adding that Infiniband could play in important part in that. "But right now we're sticking with Gigabit IP."
Compaq's reservation with CompactPCI is that it was developed largely for telecoms customers, said Stephen.
Tom Bradicich, IBM's chief technology architect for xSeries servers, agreed, saying blade servers based on CompactPCI are suitable for telcos but "have performance and cost deficiencies" that make them unsuitable for the mainstream server market.
IBM will not even use a single backplane across all its servers. Technology from RLX will be used in IBM blade servers destined for the front-end -- Web servers, for instance. Another architecture, called eXcalibur, will debut towards the end of 2002 for application servers and what IBM calls the middle-tier. "The blade phenomenon is bigger than a single product," said Bradicich. "We have dozens of servers, as do our competitors, and as the blade architecture makes its way into the server market it will apply at different points across our portfolio."
Like Compaq's Stephen, Bradicich does believe there is a possibility of a standard for mixing and matching blades. "The capability to do that could be developed in the future. It is possible but it is still a few years out."
Whatever that standard is, it will not be CompactPCI. "Weakness in power, density and cost mean it is unsuitable for mainstream servers," Bradicich said.