Big Blue Opens Up BladeCenter

IBM’s move could drive down the cost of entry for many potential adopters—and stimulate additional sales for BladeCenter

Intel Corp.’s x86 architecture has for years been a de facto standard in many volume and midrange market segments—but it’s never truly been open. Now that may be changing.

Last week, IBM Corp. and Intel announced plans to publish the design specifications of Big Blue’s x86-based BladeCenter platform. Both companies say they’ll make the specifications available on a royalty-free basis, and will include appropriate technology and patent licenses for any IBM or Intel patents that may be required.

By publishing these specifications, the two partners claim, hardware vendors will be able to create products compatible with, or customized for, BladeCenter.

Tim Dougherty, director of IBM’s BladeCenter line, says that blade designs from IBM and other vendors are highly proprietary, owing to the engineering challenges associated with packing so many computer resources—such as two Gigahertz range Xeon processors, memory, and storage—onto a thin card.

By making the BladeCenter design specifications available to interested hardware vendors and customers alike, Big Blue hopes to change that. Dougherty, for his part, touted several examples of what IBM has in mind, citing BladeCenter-friendly networking switches, adapter cards, and appliance and communications blades designed for enterprise networks.

“If you’re familiar with BladeCenter, in the back there are four-switch module switches. They can be Ethernet, InfiniBand, MirrorBand high performance switches, whatever you want,” says Dougherty. “By having the specifications [for those switches], it gives you the technical details about what’s the heat and power you have to live within [and] how do you pin out the power for the connection to the back end, so it encourages people to go build new switches.”

For example, says Dougherty, telecommunications vendors can obtain the specifications for BladeCenterT, an IBM offering designed for dense, compute-intensive server platforms, and design an infrastructure that complements the standards-based AdvancedTCA specification already in use throughout the service provider public-network infrastructure. “There will be situations where people want to create a specific software stack, and the big area where we see a lot of that going to happen is actually in the telco space,” he confirms.

IBM and Intel have also pledged to provide technical support to assist hardware vendors with their product development efforts. Big Blue, in particular, says it will offer hands-on, fee-based support from its Engineering and Technology Services organization.

IBM’s move parallels, to some extent, its initial decision to open up the design of the original IBM PC a quarter of a century ago. That choice, it must be said, was born of necessity: Big Blue was scrambling to field a PC entry at a price point—and in sufficient enough volume—to compete with established competitors such as Apple. In this case—owning 44 percent of the blade server market, according to the latest IDC numbers—IBM isn’t under as much pressure, Dougherty acknowledges.

Nevertheless, he suggests, an open BladeCenter platform could drive down the cost of entry for many potential adopters.

There’s the possibility IBM’s move could trigger a domino effect among competitors, but Dougherty isn’t convinced that will lead to interoperable blade standards any time soon. “When you talk about standards, there’s lots of different ways. There are formal standards bodies, if you go that route, it’s very hard to get all of the vendors to sit down and agree,” he argues.

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.