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IBM, Intel Slice Open Blade 'DNA'

UPDATED: Is it altruistic if two companies open up their intellectual property so that others might create products based on their work?

IBM and Intel think so. The companies said Thursday they agreed to free up their blade server specifications in the hopes of luring third-party companies to develop thin computing machines based on their designs.

Unlike larger "box" servers, blades typically run in a rack in a data center, allowing servers, storage and networking devices to run together. Consuming less space and power because of their pizza-box-like size, blades run Web sites and e-mail systems in a more cost-effective manner than their bigger-box cousins.

Tim Dougherty, director of marketing for IBM's eServer BladeCenter, said blades have matured to the point where there needs to be an effective blueprint hardware concerns can use to create modular machines for themselves.

That is why IBM and Intel "are granting free and open access" to the design specifications of the BladeCenter system, Dougherty told internetnews.com. Specifically, IBM and Intel will offer blueprints for appliance vendors and developers to create BladeCenter-compatible networking switches, blade adapter cards, and appliance and communications blades.

HP, IBM's chief blade rival, rejects the significance of the news. Paul Miller, vice president of marketing for HP Industry Standard Servers and Blades, questioned what good can come out of two companies foisting their blade blueprints on customers.

Miller said leading vendors have been trying to hash out a common blade management framework to promote interoperability, pointing to the Distributed Management Task Force's agreement with the Blade Systems Alliance, as an example of one such effort to commercialize blades through uniformity.

"Two vendors and a partnership does not equate to a standard," Miller told internetnews.com. "When you look at the blade ecosystem, customers are not looking for a system they can build themselves. They're looking for an integrated solution that fits their whole spectrum of needs. Just opening up a specification that talks about an interface is not solving customer problems."

Moreover, Miller questioned the point of opening up BladeCenter while the product is in the "sunset" of its lifecycle, and wondered if IBM's commitment is as rock solid as it should be for vendors to use the spec.

Illuminata analyst Jonathan Eunice called the notion that BladeCenter is at the end of its lifecycle "laughable," and has a theory as to why HP might be upset.

"HP is perhaps upset that it was first to market -- of the majors, at least -- and yet IBM has grabbed a signifiant share, as well as apparently being Intel's better friend on the blade front," Eunice told internetnews.com. "That has got to rankle, given how much of HP's fortunes it has committed to Intel, and how successful they were together in the Intel server business (ProLiant) to date."

Eunice also pointed out that the very same arguments that IBM is now making around opening up its blade design were made by HP before the Compaq acquisition, when HP was trying to do the very same thing with a cPCI-based design.

IBM's Dougherty said he realizes if enough vendors begin building products based on IBM and Intel technology, their work could become the default standard; he noted that IBM came up with the system after determining it wasn't feasible to create specialty blades for other vendors.

IBM determined the best answer was to open up its technology. This is something the company, which opened up its POWER microprocessor architecture earlier this year, is no stranger to.

The ability to saturate the market with its IP means more market share in a tightly fought race between blade server leaders IBM and HP, which seem to flip-flop leadership positions based on Gartner and IDC estimates.

"We are capitalizing on the leadership we've established in the blade market," Dougherty told internetnews.com. "I think we're beyond the early adopter phase of blades and ready for the masses to adopt them. And to make that happen we need a broader ecosystem."

Accordingly, IBM and Intel will provide technical support to assist product development, including design guidelines and fee-based support from IBM's Engineering & Technology Services organization.

Dougherty agreed that expanding the market will help IBM gain more traction against chief blade rival HP, which, until 2004, had led the blade server market.

However, IBM's improvements to its BladeCenter and willingness to trot out new variations have caused customers looking for alternative computing machines to take a hard look at Big Blue. By Dougherty's own admission, IBM went from a "standing start" a year and half ago to selling more than 100,000 Intel Xeon blade systems.

This is good for an almost 44 percent market share, according to second quarter 2004 numbers from IDC, with HP trailing at 32 percent.

More broadly, interest in blades is on the rise, as IDC recently estimated that blade servers will account for one out of every four servers sold by 2007.