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Standards-based blade servers due out this year, but without big names attached

The Server Systems Infrastructure Forum said that standards-based blade servers, chassis and components will be out this year, but not from HP, Dell, IBM or Sun.

A movement to standardize server blades and their components will bear fruit this year, but some notable brands will be missing.

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The Server Systems Infrastructure (SSI) Forum said Tuesday that standards-based blade servers, chassis and components will be available by the end of 2009, but they won't come from blade server market leaders Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM, Dell Inc. or Sun Microsystems Inc.

So far, 30 other server and hardware component vendors have used the Server Systems Infrastructure Forum's standardization requirements for blade servers so that their blade hardware is interoperable. These companies, including American Megatrends Inc., Samsung, Intel Corp., and Super Micro, have already begun working on products, and by the end of 2009, IT pros will be able to buy blades, chassis and components like mezzanine cards, switching and I/O that are interchangeable, said Jim Ryan, an SSI chairman who also works for Intel.

"The whole reason we are doing this is to create a truly open and interoperable blade system so that users can interchange their blade servers within a chassis," Ryan said. "Today, you can't mix an HP and IBM blade component, but if these vendors comply with SSI, users will be able to."

Standardized blades and blade components are expected to catch on with IT departments that consider vendor lock-in a major drawback of using blade servers. A New York-based IT administrator for a large university said vendor lock-in is a major negative when it comes to blades. "No chassis is vendor agnostic. ... I want the freedom to switch without penalty at any time."

It stands to reason that when you have control over all the components, they will be less expensive.
Jim Ryan,
chairmanServer Systems Infrastructure Forum

And end users who depend on a single vendor's blade system are also at the mercy of that vendor's related technology decisions. One user called some blade platforms, such as the HP BladeSystem p-Class, "evolutionary dead ends." HP's p-class blade systems were discontinued in 2007 and replaced by the current C-class architecture.

Users who buy standards-based blades, chassis and components won't have to worry about wasting their IT investment on short-lived technologies, according to Gilad Shainer, an SSI chairman and Mellanox Technologies executive.

Standardization also lowers the cost of research and development and manufacturing for vendors, Ryan said. This means standards-based blade servers will probably be less expensive than today's proprietary blades. "It stands to reason that when you have control over all the components, they will be less expensive: commoditization at its best," Ryan said.

The blade server value vs. standardization argument
The largest blade vendor, HP, is not going along because the company wants to innovate on its own clock and compete with its own flavor of technology, said Richard Fichera, the director of BladeSystem strategy for HP.

Outside the chassis, the HP BladeSystem interfaces with standard Ethernet, Fibre Channel, power, and 19-inch racks, but pushing standard components into the actual blade server itself would compromise HP's ability to add value to its blades, Fichera said.

"The guts of a blade server are already very standard; everyone is using the same types of memory, PCI, and CPUs, but the notion of a standard form factor doesn't make sense, because that is where the vendors add value," Fichera said. "What is important is the software inside each blade."

Standardization efforts could hurt companies like HP: If users could put Dell or IBM blades into an HP chassis, the company would lose revenue. By locking end users into its system, HP forces a captive audience.

But Fichera discounted vendor lock-in concerns. "While it is harder to move to another system once you have bought into one, it is almost the same situation with rack servers. You don't find people switching system vendors all that often," he said.

Still, SSI hopes once standards-based blades hit, the largest blade vendors will be pressured to standardize. And even if they don't, end users still get a nonproprietary option, Ryan said.

"What we are doing is giving people some flexibility and choices when it comes to blade servers," Ryan said. "They have their own proprietary products, but we continue to hope that they will join us."

It isn't likely that HP will change its direction and start building to SSI's standards anytime soon, though, especially since the company has a 54% revenue share of the blade market..

"I find it hard to believe a loosely related group of companies will be able to build a competitive blade. . . . The companies in this consortium don't even register in the blade market today; all together they have zero percent of the blade market," Fichera said. "None of these people have a chance at selling their products to the enterprise customer."

IBM , which also opposes blade standardization, follows HP in the market with 21.7% revenue share. Sun, Dell, and Fujitsu/Fujitsu-Siemens have the next largest market share. For the full year 2008, worldwide blade server revenue grew 33.3% year over year to $5.4 billion, IDC reported.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Bridget Botelho, News Writer.

And check out our data center blogs: Server Farming, Mainframe Propellerhead and Data Center Facilities Pro


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