Intel backs specification for low-cost blade servers

Spec for blade servers is aimed at cutting development costs and making the space-saving systems available to SMBs

Intel expects a draft specification for blade servers to help vendors cut their development costs and push the space-saving systems into new markets.

Developed by the Server System Infrastructure (SSI) Forum, the draft Modular Server Specifications were unveiled Monday in Taipei, where many of the world's largest hardware makers are based. Similar to a reference design, the specifications outline design guidelines for blade servers, defining features such as the size of the motherboard and the types of connectors that are used.

"For the developers -- the board, chassis, and power supply vendors that are doing the actual development -- it gives them a common point of reference to bring to market platforms that can easily integrate with other vendors' products," said Patrick Buddenbaum, blade marketing director at Intel's Server Platforms Group, in a telephone interview.

Blade servers, which put server components onto motherboards that can be packed closely together, are the fastest-growing segment of the server market, according to IDC. Shipments of blade servers grew 63.6 percent during 2005, the last year for which figures are available, and growth is expected to continue at an annual rate of 38 percent through 2010, it said.

A lack of standards for blade-server designs has kept costs high and meant the systems were primarily used by large companies and data centers.

"The entry cost for blade servers, even though it's the fastest growing part of the server market, is extremely high," said Kirk Skaugen, vice president and general manager of Intel's Server Platforms Group, saying the development of one blade-server design and its required components can cost up to $12 million. "That is a huge investment."

To bring down costs, the SSI specification looks to use products that are available on the market, such as heatsinks and memory modules, rather than specialized components, Skaugen said.

Intel is hoping the new specifications will make blades available for customers at small and medium-sized companies. The chip maker also hopes to see more hardware makers produce blade servers.

"Most of the blade development that's been done in the industry has been the focus of multinational corporations," Buddenbaum said. "A lot of the peripheral vendors, the ODMs (original design manufacturer, the local OEMs (original equipment manufacturers), and resellers are not present in the blade market today."

At present, there are 17 different blade server designs, with three designs accounting for 90 percent of the market share. "It's very difficult for those remaining OEMs to have a profitable product," he said.

The first servers based on the new draft specification may appear hit the market before the end of this year, with more arriving products in 2008 when the final version of the specification is released, Intel said.