Intel, Server Vendors Agree on One I/O Standard

Intel and its Next Generation I/O Forum joined up with the Future I/O group, led by Compaq, IBM and Hewlett-Packard, to form one I/O standard architecture called System I/O.

Intel Corp. and its Next Generation I/O Forum (NGIO, www.ngioforum.org) joined up with the Future I/O group (www.futureio.org), led by Compaq Computer Corp., IBM Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co., to form one I/O standard architecture called System I/O.

An independent nonprofit company -- but guided by Intel and IBM -- will govern System I/O. The announcement was made in late August at the Intel Developers Forum held in Palm Springs, Calif., and comes at the apex of a heated debate between industry rivals over the future of I/O architectures.

"IBM, Compaq and HP are tired of Intel controlling their destiny in the server market," says Joe Barkan, analyst with GartnerGroup (www.gartner.com). "They felt that Intel had all the control and they didn't have enough in the form of input or intellectual property or control over possible licensing costs."

According to Barkan, the Future I/O group had complained that the NGIO specification was too slow and was going to require an update later because it wasn't scalable enough. The Intel people disputed this.

The argument was always political. "It's a political issue and a money issue turned into a technological issue," Barka explains. "The bottom line is having multiple standards competing in this market is not necessarily a good thing."

The new specification will help platforms that run on industry-standard, high-volume servers -- such as the upcoming Windows 2000 -- benefit from the lower price points for handling better I/O. Brian Valentine, vice president for business on Windows at Microsoft Corp., says up until now, Microsoft was taking a neutral stance, hoping the two groups would come to a compromise. If the two groups hadn't, Microsoft would have had to split resources to develop on both architectures. Now, Microsoft is able to continue to push Windows 2000 Server and Datacenter Server up the enterprise ladder in one architecture, especially since Windows 2000 on Alpha will no longer exist.

System I/O will be a switched fabric technology that provides mountains of bandwidth over PCI -- the local bus standard developed by Intel to connect host computers and peripheral devices -- and its extension PCIX.

Tom Bradicich, director of architecture and design for Intel-based Netfinity servers at IBM, says a draft of the specification will be done by the end of the year. Servers implementing the architecture are not expected until 2001. Martin Whittaker, research and development manager at HP, says there will be one-, four- and 12-wire implementations: one wire will get 500 MB I/O, four wires will get around 2 GB I/O and 12 wires will get up to 6 GB I/O.

According to James Gruener, analyst with Aberdeen Group (www.aberdeen.com), the potential implication of having separate standards would have been disastrous. "If you bought a Compaq system and a Dell system, they could conceivably have had different I/O drivers, and because of this you would have a heck of a problem matching them up," Gruener says. "By going with one standard you eliminate complexity."