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IBM opens Blade Center interface spec to third parties

Posted: 07 Sep 2004 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:ibm? eserver blade center platform? pci express advanced switching? advanced telecommunications? computing architecture?

IBM Corp.'s decision to open up the interface specifications for its eServer Blade Center platforms left analysts and competitors scratching their heads wondering how an open board standard might fare against existing efforts such as PCI Express Advanced Switching and the Advanced Telecommunications Computing Architecture.

IBM is limiting rights to designs for BladeCenter to data-plane add-in functions such as embedded routing, embedded Layer2/3 switching and telecommunications functions. Management processor and some control-plane functions are left off the table, though IBM executives said this is because server customers are not looking for full chassis interface specs.

Three specific interfaces that are being opened to third parties on a royalty-free basis, said Tim Dougherty, director of marketing for IBM's eServer BladeCenter program. IBM will allow vendors to build switches that can reside in the four switch bays of existing eServer platforms. IBM also will give third parties specs for network adapters and host bus adapters that link a blade to a backplane through a connector.

Finally, IBM will license function-specific blades that link to the backplane itself, for tasks such as intrusion detection, firewalls and XML acceleration.

Intel Corp. will play a major role in assisting IBM with providing design guidelines and support to third parties developing boards for BladeCenter. Intel owns much of the intellectual property at both the chip and board level for BladeCenter, so the two companies will collaborate at licensing those rights on a royalty-free basis.

Intel has offered BladeCenter products on an OEM basis to customers in order to help drive the IBM architecture. Intel will offer customers reference designs for certain blades and adapters. IBM, meanwhile, will offer free consulting services through its Engineering and Technology Services Organization, and also will offer fee-based services to directly design interface cards.

By helping IBM promote open modular interfaces to BladeCenter, Intel risks competing with its own efforts to drive PCI Express and ATCA. IBM claims the move will complement ATCA, because BladeCenter is specific to the server blade market. As such, it may do more to help IBM gain market share over servers from Sun Microsystems Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. and Wintel-centric companies like Dell, than it does to confuse the open-interface effort.

Two trends work against such a clear distinction, however. As intelligence moves to the edge of the public network, many telecommunications and data communications functions that resided in a standalone router or integrated access device, are now being embedded within servers. This will blur existing distinctions between open-architecture blade-based servers and modular network equipment.

Also, standards organizations promoting PCI Express, PCI Express Advanced Switching, Infiniband, Rapid I/O and even Ethernet in the data center, already are promoting architectures that span telecom platforms, networking platforms and server-farm topologies.

IBM's Dougherty said that even though IBM has eServer product lines for both the enterprise and the telco central-office or point-of-presence, there is still a fairly strict delineation between servers and networking equipmentat least for now.

"We expect a complementary relation with ATCA because we see our architecture as much more compute-centric," Dougherty said. "Will server functions and communication functions come closer over time? Only the market can determine that."

The more radical opportunity IBM sees is to sweep up several functions now residing outside the server, and bring them fully inside a server architecture. Last week, leading server "front-end" vendors such as F5 Networks and Redline Networks moved to next-generation architectures that sweep up firewall and load-balancing functions in one platform. Dougherty said the next step will be to bring all those merged functions inside the server.

Jag Bolaria, server analyst with the Linley Group Inc., said IBM's position on ATCA is legitimate, since ATCA focuses on chassis, power and thermal management, and does not try to define control or data path functions in depth. An open BladeCenter world "could, to some extent, work within the infrastructure of ATCA."

"In the long run, though, IBM still is endorsing Infiniband, while Intel is promoting PCI Express Advanced Switching for a peer-to-peer interconnect," Bolaria said. "There's almost certainly going to be some overlap there."

All of the interface camps, however, may be underestimating the impact of Ethernet used as a point-to-point interconnect, Bolaria said. The migration from 1- to 10Gb Ethernet may take longer in the data center than some anticipate, he added, but the power of Ethernet could overwhelm all other competitors.

"As much as IBM wants to call this open, BladeCenter still starts from proprietary beginnings, and both BladeCenter and Advanced Switching designers had to develop something that wasn't there" before, Bolaria said. "With Ethernet, you have an interconnect that people are very familiar with and comfortable with from the LAN switching world."

- Loring Wirbel

EE Times

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