No one knows better than IBM Corp. the dangers of opening up the specifications of a hardware technology. In 1981, in an effort to create a vibrant ecosystem with its legendary PC AT personal computer, IBM completely opened up the specs, allowing not only anyone to create hardware and software that plugged into the PC AT, but also eventually allowing Compaq and others to create full-blown clones of it.
This undercut IBM’s PC sales, and it lost control of the PC platform it created. As IBM and Intel Corp. roll out a royalty-free technology licensing agreement for the BladeCenter blade server design they share today, you can bet the two only want the ecosystem part of history to repeat itself.
And that, says Tim Dougherty, director of BladeCenter marketing at IBM, is exactly the intent of the royalty-free specification licensing that IBM and Intel are proposing. The two companies are partners in blade server design, and have cross-licensed technology related to blade servers, and they want to make it easier for suppliers of networking switches, adapter cards, and specialized blade servers that fit in the BladeCenter chassis that IBM sells and that Intel sells on an OEM basis to other server makers.
This is about creating a more robust ecosystem for blade servers, Dougherty says. The kinds of things that IBM and Intel want to forment the creation of include sophisticated switching gear, adapters such as those used in medical and testing environments to link lab equipment back to servers, telecom-specific blades that replace the functionality of an analog switch with a digital computer, or appliance blades that provide Web caching, firewall, or other functions.
This is good, and may be the first time that intellectual property embodied in a server spec has been given away royalty free. The technology licensing agreement gets you the machine specs (if you sign a contract), and also stipulates that you don’t have to pay royalties (which typically run to the tune of a few percentage points of the price of the gear you create to interface with a system like the BladeCenter, according to Dougherty). But IBM and Intel are being self-serving in as much as this is a far cry from the truly open spec that the PC AT represented and that largely put Intel on the map as a company any of us care about.
You see, the technology licensing agreements that component suppliers have to sign to get access to the BladeCenter specs and to get the royalty-free use of that intellectual property have an interesting provision that prohibits them from making general purpose blade servers that would compete with the blades that IBM and Intel (and its OEM customers) want to sell to customers. So if you were thinking about starting up a business making blades that fit into the BladeCenter chassis through this spec, you can forget about it. And if you reverse-engineer a blade that fits into the BladeCenter chassis, even if you do so without the spec, you probably will still be talking to IBM’s or Intel’s lawyers in short order, explaining how you did that without violating the intellectual property rights.
There is a lot of talk about openness and standards in the server market, and with the advent of the blade server market, three years ago, there was some hope that eventually there would be a commercial blade server standard that would allow vendors to create blades that would fit into a standard set of chassis; moreover, true standardization would allow customers to pick and chose from a wide variety of auxiliary components, specialized blades, and adapters, not just the ones certified for a BladeCenter from IBM, a ProLiant BL from Hewlett-Packard Co., or a Sun Fire BL1600 from Sun Microsystems Inc.
Right now, HP and IBM are neck-and-neck over market share in the nascent enterprise blade server market (as distinct from the various blade standards in use in the telecommunications market, which has had blade servers for years). There cannot be a true standard until IBM and HP settle some pretty big differences on how a blade is shaped, how it plugs into a chassis, and how it talks to storage and the outside world.
Rick Becker, general manager of HP’s blade systems business, picked apart the Intel-IBM announcement, as you would expect. He said that there is a lot of interest in standardization in the blade market, but he took a jab at IBM’s approach. (IBM is apparently in the driver’s seat in that relationship with Intel, and was rumored to have received money from Intel from the blade partnership the two signed in September 2002.)
One company doesn’t drive a standard, and putting up a spec that you’ve been trying to sell a year without a lot of success is not a standard, said Becker. He also wondered aloud about how far along in its lifecycle the current BladeCenter design was that IBM and Intel are licensing, saying that HP is designing for an eight-year lifecycle, perhaps with overlapping chassis designs as technology permits. (HP is expected to launch new blade center chassis in 2006.)
He also questioned IBM’s and Intel’s requirements for customers to sign non-disclosure agreements to see the BladeCenter specs, and said that HP has been giving away the specs on the ProLiant BL series to partners that want to create adjunct products for these machines. We show our specification to partners all the time. We don’t throw the spec against the wall just to see what sticks, Becker added. To be fair, HP’s ProLiant BL specs are not an open document that anyone can see, so HP is likewise controlling access to its blade server intellectual property, just in a different manner.
All of this begs the question of whether there can be real blade server standards. Dougherty was clear that the intent of this royalty-free specification was to build the BladeCenter ecosystem and not to try to make IBM’s design the industry standard (although, clearly, IBM would love this to happen).
Becker was not very optimistic about there being the kind of standard happening that would allow interchangeability between all kinds of chassis and blades. Becker says that the common ground that blade server makers might be able to agree on are in the areas of blade server management interfaces, storage interfaces, software APIs, and other means of linking into blade servers from the outside world.