US Report: PC giants split with Intel on server design

Three rival computer mights are plotting to undermine what they see as Intel's increasing control over the design of NT servers.

IBM (NYSE:IBM), Hewlett-Packard, (NYSE:HWP) and Compaq (NYSE:CPQ) have jointly and surreptitiously developed an enhanced PCI specification for servers that may boost I/O performance on NT servers by up to six-fold.

Code-named Project 1, the PCIX specification is part of a wider plan to strengthen the trio's role in X86-based server development. PCIX takes the existing and ageing PCI spec to new heights. PCI, which was developed by Intel (Nasdaq:INTC) in 1993, runs at a paltry 66MHz and transfers data between the CPU and peripherals at 132MB per second. As a result, current PCI-based I/O is a bottleneck for processing multiple applications.

PCIX will support bus speeds of up 133MHz, and it will transfer up to 1GB per second between the CPU and the peripherals. The new PCIX chip sets and third-party add-in components will be backward-compatible with the older PCI architecture. The new spec "fills the gap [between] current PCI and the next-generation I/O coming with Merced," said one member of the PCIX group. An announcement of PCIX should be forthcoming within 60 days, sources said, with servers and third-party products available in the first half of next year.

Beyond the immediate performance improvements of PCIX, the symbolism of a cartel making architectural changes to the PC server without consulting Intel is significant. "The time is ripe for a grass-roots type of backlash. We're trying to create an environment where Intel is an equal player in the technology, not the controller," said an executive in the PCIX clan.

Indeed, Intel's control has been a bone of contention among vendors with the know-how to overcome Wintel's scalability, availability and performance limitations. Matters have been made worse by Microsoft. (Nasdaq:MSFT) and Intel attempting to move their architectures into the glass house.

Industry insiders said the trio is determined not to make commodities of mid-range and high-end NT servers, especially when they can differentiate their products from vendors, such as Dell (Nasdaq:DELL), that buy most of their technology directly from Intel. "We want to be more involved in creating and setting the standards, but sometimes you get stuck with what they're offering," said an executive with a second company involved in the development. "Today's PCI is an example of that."

Sources said that Intel received the proposed PCI specification from the trio in late August. The PCI Special Interest Group is also mulling the spec over, and is expected to approve it as a standard. The sources added that Intel is expected to endorse PCIX and eventually build support for it into IA-32 chip sets. But even if it doesn't, IBM and Mylex will build supporting chip sets, they said. "It would give [third parties like Mylex] a competitive edge over Intel," said one of the executives. 3Com (Nasdaq:COMS) and Adaptec have also committed to building products based on the technology, and Microsoft has endorsed it, sources said.

Additional reporting by Carmen Nobel