Intel Initiatives to Drive High-end Server Growth

In a keynote address at the Intel Developer’s Forum (IDF) in Palm Springs, Calif., late last month, John Miner, vice president and general manager of the enterprise server group of Intel Corp. outlined the company’s strategy to drive the growth of high-volume servers into higher-performance market segments than where Intel currently has a presence.

In a keynote address at the Intel Developer’s Forum (IDF) in Palm Springs, Calif., late last month, John Miner, vice president and general manager of the enterprise server group of Intel Corp. outlined the company’s strategy to drive the growth of high-volume servers into higher-performance market segments than where Intel currently has a presence.

The elements of Intel’s direction that Miner discussed include a series of industry initiatives to make the Intel Architecture (IA) more capable of handling Unix operating system platforms. Initiatives include the Uniform Device Driver Interface (UDI), Server System Infrastructure (SSI) Initiative, Intelligent Platform Management Interface (IPMI) Initiative and Virtual Interface (VI) Architecture Initiative. To put these initiatives into motion, Intel is partnering with several of the industry’s major server hardware vendors, such as Dell Computer Corp. (Round Rock, Texas, www.dell.com), Hewlett-Packard Co., Micron Electronics Inc. (Nampa, Idaho, www.micron.com), NEC Computer Systems Division (Boxborough, Mass., www.nec.com) and Data General Corp. (Westborough, Mass., www.dg.com).

For instance, Intel is currently working with vendors from the Unix community on UDI. "[UDI] will effectively enable the industry to write a single device driver for any Unix operating environment," says Miner.

Miner also stated that UDI will improve the availability of devices supported by Unix flavors, and provide for a more standard device interface and device drivers. The goal of this project is to create an environment where vendors can build and maintain a single device driver implementation that will work across multiple versions of Unix on IA.

In addition to UDI, Intel is teaming with hardware vendors on the SSI Initiative. The SSI Initiative will be releasing specifications for two common elements in server system infrastructures: power supplies and electronics bay design.

As system manufacturers increasingly take a standard building-block approach to server design for cost and time-to-market advantages, the IPMI initiative will enable the integration of these building blocks by allowing platform management hardware to interoperate.

Through the VI Architecture Initiative, Intel is working to develop common interfaces for the hardware and software used to communicate within a cluster of servers or workstations. At the IDF, in fact, the company demonstrated a high-performance, 16-node Pentium II Xeon processor-based server cluster that showcased a VI Architecture-based solution performing data warehousing that would have previously been reserved for a dedicated mainframe.

The sum of these initiatives will likely be an increased presence in the Unix market. "Intel wants the whole market," says Rob Enderle, senior analyst, Giga Information Group Inc. (Santa Clara, Calif.), a market analysis firm. "And it has done a reasonably good job of stifling its competitors."

While Intel’s Miner points to the Unix operating systems running on IA as a target market for Intel servers, the company’s relationship with Microsoft Corp. is certainly at play here as well. Intel isn’t totally dependent on Microsoft’s software, but the Wintel combination is clearly the driving force behind Intel's dominance in the microprocessor market. "For the growth Intel wants in the high-performance market, Windows NT really has to mature enough to be able to scale that high," says Giga’s Enderle. "The software’s ability will be a factor in the hardware’s success. At least in that regard, the two are locked at the hip."

As Microsoft drives imminent versions of Windows NT into the higher end of the market, Enderle says, in time Intel will dominate that space. "It’ll probably take the release of NT 6.0 until we get to where people actually use NT in the high end instead of Unix. NT 5.0 may be capable of handling enterprise needs, but it won’t be until NT 6.0 that the OS will be trusted," he says.

Regarding both Windows NT and Unix, Intel’s Miner points out, "A certainty about the high-volume server is that it will continue to evolve and improve."

For Intel, the high-end server growth it is chasing will not be caught quickly. "We’re a couple of years away from Intel’s getting the high-end growth it wants," says Giga’s Enderle. "But in one way, shape, form or another, Intel will work its way into that market space."