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Blade server standards coming this year

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A standard to which no big vendors adhere is as intimidating as a tiger with its teeth and claws removed. And so it might be with the standards for blade servers that the Server Systems Infrastructure (SSI) forum is trying to get into the field.

Since the advent of commercial blade servers at the turn of the millennium, corporate customers have decried the lack of standards even as they cut checks. Blade servers are much older in the telecommunication industry, and server infrastructure for telcos has long since been standardized and ruggedized.

It's reasonable to wonder why there isn't a set of standard blade-server chassis, backplanes and midplanes, blade-server and switch form factors, and interchangeable mezzanine cards. It's reasonable - but such standardization would remove account and product line control and create too aggressive a market for competition.

Vendors charge a premium for the density and ease of configuration and management that blades offer, but that hefty premium is one of the reasons why blade servers still only account for about 10 per cent of global server sales after eight years of sales. It should be double or triple that level, given the real and substantial TCO benefits that blades offer.

According to a report in EE Times, the SSI this week put out a set of draft server specifications at the 0.9-release level that Intel and its partners hope will be adhered to by server and peripheral makers.

Intel and 31 other makers of servers, motherboards, peripherals, switches, and other electronic components affiliated with blade servers support these standards. But thus far IBM seems content to push its BladeCenter design in concert with Intel through the Blade.org consortium. Hewlett-Packard, today's dominant blade shipper, and Dell and Sun Microsystems, which are getting traction with their blades, are not part of the SSI effort.

Considering that HP, IBM, Dell, and Sun account for nearly all blade server sales, this is a big shortcoming. None of these vendors have said they want a standard chassis with standard blades and peripherals that would allow customers to use any vendors' products they choose.

To its credit, last fall IBM opened up the switch specifications for the BladeCenter chassis to the SSI. That's a step, but that doesn't make SSI a standard as much as it lets IBM kinda wink and nod and say it is adhering to a standard when what it is actually doing is suggesting that its way of linking switches to blades is a standard, and one that is sanctioned by SSI.

Last fall was also when SSI started charging dues, ranging from $5,000 to $50,000 a year, from members to help fund the standards effort. It was also when SSI put together a presentation (PDF) explaining its mission, its new organization, and the basics of the standards it is proposing for blade, switch, and card form factors.

Jim Ryan, an IBM marketing manager and SSI chairman, admitted last September that the consortium members had been hoping to get a draft of the SSI specifications into the field in late 2007 with products adhering to them coming to market in 2008. As is clear, they didn't make it. The blade-standards effort is taking more time than originally planned, seeing as how the standards are not yet at the 1.0 release level - you can see the list of draft specifications here.)

SSI was not available for comment at press time, and we have not been able to unearth a formal announcement of the specifications.

It would be interesting to see customer pressure applied to vendors to adopt standard chassis and blade form factors and interconnects, but this seems unlikely. And it is certainly something that the dominant blade players don't want, either.

So don't hold your breath. ®

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