Intel targets server blade market

Supporting a wave of upcoming server blade offerings from companies such as Compaq Computer Corp., IBM Corp., and Hewlett-Packard Co., Intel Corp. here on Tuesday introduced a new chip designed exclusively for ultra-dense servers.

The 700MHz Ultra Low Voltage Pentium III chip consumes only 1.1 volts during normal operation, making it ideal for dense server architectures such as server blades that promise maximum server density with reduced power consumption, according to Shannon Poulin, a launch and disclosures manager with Intel, based in Santa Clara, Calif.

Combined with Intel's mobile 440GX chip set, the new 0.13-micron architecture Pentium III offers 512KB of on-chip cache memory and support for industry-standard PC 100 SDRAM (synchronous dynamic RAM).

As server blades progress into multiple-processor configuration, Intel plans to stay in lock step with the release of a dual-processor version of the new Ultra Low Voltage Pentium III in the first quarter of 2002, Poulin said.

Poulin agrees that server blades hold the promise of becoming the default server architecture of the future, and said that Intel is positioning itself to be the primary chip provider for server blades.

Server blades are a new breed of ultra-dense server that sport a revolutionary vertical design which lends itself nicely to low-power, low-heat operation while allowing users to fit hundreds of server blades in a standard rack. Early entrances into the server blade market from companies such as RLX Technologies Inc., Racemi Inc., and Compaq each initially courted mobile chips from Intel rival Transmeta Corp., whose Crusoe chip promised low-power, low-heat performance was suited for server blades.

But Intel quickly saw the growing market for server blade processors and acted, overtaking Transmeta in the process, said John Enck, a senior research director for the Gartner Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn.

"Compaq evaluated Transmeta and choose Intel," said Enck, who explained that as server blades first began to arrive, "Transmeta clearly had a market to make a play in."

But, Enck said, that early market was mainly comprised of service providers looking for dense front-end server solutions. Now, as larger server companies such as Compaq, IBM, and HP begin to look at server blades, "they look for things like ECC [error correcting code], which Transmeta does not have," Enck said.

"Intel wasn't in the best position to deliver these types of [server blade chips] until the big boys started getting into the idea of blades," Enck said. "Now Intel has gotten really serious about producing a more competitive low-voltage product than ever before."

Just this week here at Comdex, the "big boys" unveiled major server blade initiatives.

Compaq's QuickBlade server blade initiative is a product portfolio project that aims to bring server blade architecture out into the application server layer and quite possibly the database, said Matthew Carreras, a product marketing manager for Compaq's mainstream server marketing group, based in Houston.

Set to arrive early next year, Compaq's single processor QuickBlade server modules can house "hundreds of server blades" within a standard rack and deliver a power savings of approximately 25 percent over standard 1.75-inch rackable servers, Carreras said.

Running Intel's low-power Pentium III "Tualatin" processor, Compaq's one-way server blades can deliver performance equal to the company's DL360 1.75-inch servers, while saving an abundance of space and power.

Hot-swappable QuickBlade server blades can be removed on the fly, and new blades are automatically reformatted for the operation in progress.

Breaking the mold of server blades as front-end-only servers, Compaq will soon deliver two-way and four-way server blades through the QuickBlade program. These Intel Xeon processor-based server blades will take the architecture to the application server layer for the first time.

The advantage of the two-way and four-way QuickBlade systems will be the ability to deliver application server performance while still getting the dense form factor and manageability associated with server blades.

Compaq is also looking to implement server blade-type architectures in database and other heavy computing hardware designs, Carreras said.

IBM has big plans for server blades as well and is attacking the challenge from both the hardware and the software angle, according to Brendan Paget, the worldwide marketing manager for IBM's xSeries server group.

Like Compaq, IBM plans to apply server blade architecture all the way to the database, Paget said. The company is well into the development of server blades that house "a totally self-contained computer" on a single blade, he said.

Big Blue as early as next year will also begin to offer what Paget called "virtual blades," in which a server blade system could be partitioned internally to not only have separate, hot-swappable hardware components, but virtual software partitions that could be re-allocated or fail-over on the fly.

Paget said company's such as VMWare, also at Comdex, "have some very interesting products" that allow for such virtual blades, and that Big Blue is aggressively looking in to deploying such technology on their future server blades.

HP is expected to jump into the server blade market within weeks. Officials previously announced that HP's "Powerbar" server blades would debut in the fourth quarter of this year. Powerbar server blades will utilize both HP's own PA-RISC processors as well as chips from Intel, HP officials said.

Although each of the server blades from Compaq, IBM, HP, and others are similar from the front -- modular and removable from a backplane that provides cabling and power -- the real battle in the server blade market will take place from the rear, explained analyst Enck.

The blades greatest momentum won't come, he explained, until companies such as Compaq, IBM, and HP can agree on a standard for the backplanes of server blades that allow customer to swap out one company's server blade with another.

"We are going to see bigger blades," Enck said. "I've seen eight-way prototypes, the technology is coming. The killer point of blades is that there is no standard for what the blade interface and what the chassis is. Every vendor is different. So there is going to be a big war over standards in the next 18 months."

"Some vendors are saying Infiniband [should be the standard], others are saying PCI," Enck said. "HP is trying to lead the cause and promote the use of the PCI standard for the backplane interconnect. That would be a great starting point, but any point is a great starting point when trying to define a standard."

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