Will Dell jilt Intel for blade design?

Although Dell is one of Intel's tightest partners in server design, it won't be joining the chipmaker and IBM in an effort to standardize blade servers, an analyst firm predicted.
Written by Stephen Shankland, Contributor
Although Dell is one of Intel's tightest partners in server design, it won't be joining the chipmaker and IBM in an effort to standardize blade servers, a prominent analyst firm is predicting.

Intel and IBM aim to simplify the blade server environment by jointly developing systems. And Dell CEO Michael Dell himself has called for the industry to set blade server standards.

But Gartner expects Dell to go a different route, according to John Enck, an analyst at the market research firm. He expects Dell to come back in the market later this year with a product that's "different from everything else again."

Such a move would mean that each of the top four server makers--Dell, IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems--would produce blade servers based on incompatible designs. Such variation carries long-term consequences--not just because blade server enclosures are designed to last for years, but also because each company will have build its own stable of hardware partners.

Dell and Intel representatives declined to comment on or confirm the move, but one source familiar with the plan indicated Dell indeed had not signed up.

Building a blade ecosystem
Blade servers are thin systems that slide into a chassis like books into a bookshelf; the chassis has shared components such as power supplies and external network connections. The chassis can accommodate other equipment besides servers, including blades for encryption acceleration or networking, leading many to label blade servers as an example of "modular computing."

Because a blade chassis such as IBM's BladeCenter can accept these other components, a company designing a network switch, for example, must pick which company's blade models get research, development and marketing funds.

Although Dell leans heavily on Intel for research and development, the company likely can't stomach the thought of lending any weight to IBM's blade initiative, said Forrester analyst Brad Day. "Even though they have a relationship with Intel that's very strong, it's the IBM part of the relationship that doesn't allow them to accept that architecture," he said.

In addition, a Dell endorsement of IBM's standard would likely help IBM more than Dell. "It will only reinforce people considering BladeCenter to go with IBM first," Day said.

The global blade server market is small, with $583 million in sales in 2003 compared to the overall $44.3 billion server market, according to market researcher IDC. But it's growing fast; it saw a 548 percent rise in sales last year compared with 2002, when blades began to arrive from major sellers.

Many computer makers believe markets with standardized equipment will grow faster than those with exotic or customized components. But standards are a difficult balancing act.

On one hand, they make it easier for hardware partners to support many different companies--for example, by selling a single network adapter that will plug into all computer makers' machines.

On the other hand, standards make it harder to for one computer maker to create systems that have unique advantages over competitors' models, and it makes it easier for customers to switch to another company. Because creation of formal standards can be slow and contentious, market power, such as that wielded by Microsoft with its Windows operating system, often takes the place of multicompany diplomacy to set a common direction.

A de facto standard
In September 2002, IBM and Intel opted for the market power approach. The companies signed a blade server pact to jointly design blade servers--including the blades themselves, the chassis and the communication electronics that join them. The partnership has borne fruit, with IBM's HS40 blade server, which uses four Intel Xeon processors, largely identical to Intel's SBX44, though the systems use a different ejection mechanism to unplug a blade.

IBM touted the partnership as a way to create a "de facto standard" for blades. Indeed, Intel has had some success selling its blade servers spawned by the alliance; Bull, based in France, is one serious company that has signed on to the plan. But Hewlett-Packard, the top seller of Intel-based servers, bristled at the IBM-Intel partnership.

Intel doesn't characterize its efforts with IBM as standardization. "A formal blade form-factor standard is not something we're pursuing at this time," said Phil Brace, director of marketing for Intel's Enterprise Platforms Group. Still, he acknowledges that the work is geared toward establishing an "ecosystem" that's easy for third-party companies to join.

Instead, when it comes to blade standards, Intel prefers to draw attention to its server management software work, which is designed to make it easier to control blades from a central console.

Brace said he believes the companies that actually use blade servers don't want to be able to mix and match blades and chassis from different companies. "We have strong end-user feedback that interoperable CPU blades is not something end-users get excited about," Brace said.

Intel is best known as a chipmaker, but the Santa Clara, Calif.-based company also makes motherboards, which are computer "building blocks," and even full-bore computers--especially in cases where it wants to shape the market, for example with its Itanium 2 "Tiger" servers.

Dell is as famous for its efficient manufacturing as it is for relying on others, such as Intel and Microsoft, to fund most of its development costs. For example, the Round Rock, Texas-based company was depending on Intel for the guts of an eight-processor server, though that system was ultimately canceled.

Dell spokeswoman Wendy Giever said that the company is in a constant discussions with suppliers but that "we don't talk about suppliers or procurement or partner initiatives."

Dell has been dormant in the blade server market after introducing a Pentium III-based model in 2002 but plans to rejoin the market later. "We're constantly watching the blade technologies to determine when would be a good time to bring another blade product to market," Giever said.

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