In an effort to differentiate its servers in what is becoming a highly "commoditised" market, IBM will step away from Intel to develop its own core logic for the next big shift in chip technology -- the move to IA-64.
One of many vendors waiting for Intel to deliver the Profusion chip set necessary for them to ship 8-way Xeon-based servers, IBM already is developing a chip set that company officials expect to have ready in time for Intel's McKinley chip.
Code-named Summit, the chip set will borrow from IBM's history of mainframes to offer features such as hot-plug memory and a high-performance caching architecture, which company officials feel could give them an advantage over its competition after the 64-bit technology finally arrives.
"By developing our own core logic, we're able to bring down some of the mainframe technologies we've developed over the years and use them to really differentiate our products from a technology standpoint," said Jim Gargin, director of product marketing for Netfinity servers at IBM, in Raleigh, North Carolina. "I strongly suspect you'll see others develop their own core logic too."
The most likely candidate to take the same path as IBM is NEC, one of the few vendors shipping an 8-way Xeon machine using their own chip set, the Aqua 2.
Joseph Wei, director of the enterprise product group's server business unit at NEC, in Mountain View, California, said that likely will be NEC's approach with IA-64.
Two other major vendors with the capability to make such a move, Hewlett-Packard and Compaq, are not yet willing to discuss their plans for the IA-64 time frame.
Although product differentiation through chip-set technologies may be a great thing for vendors, there is concern that talk among industry observers who speculate that proprietary chip sets could eventually pose a threat to the idea of standards-based computing.
"But if you really look hard, the differentiation you see in servers is much less than just two or three years ago, and customers like it that way," said Jonathan Eunice, an analyst and IT advisor at Illuminata, in Nashua, New Hampshire.
According to both Intel and its OEMs, however, differentiation does not mean a move away from standards.
"The real standard is the processor," said Tom Owens, technical marketing engineer at Intel, in DuPont, Washington. "So as long as there is compatibility there, it's not really an issue."
Officials at Dell, HP, IBM and NEC all acknowledged the importance of remaining standards-based.
"The chip set can be a differentiator that could give each vendor an advantage, but it should be a transparent issue," Wei said.