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Intel, Server Vendors Agree on One I/O Standard

Intel Corp. and its Next Generation I/O Forum (NGIO, www.ngioforum.org) have 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 non-profit company guided by Intel and IBM will govern the System I/O. The announcement was made 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 and the servers that utilize them.

"IBM, Compaq and HP are tired of Intel controlling their destiny in the server market," says Joe Barkan, an analyst at 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 spec was too slow and was going to require an update later because it wasn't scalable enough. The Intel people have always disputed this.

Barkan says argument over the NGIO's technological prowess was a red herring. "It's a political issue and a money issue turned into a technological issue," Barkan explains. "The bottom line is having multiple standards competing in this market is not necessarily a good thing."

The new spec will allow platforms that run on industry-standard, high-volume servers, such as the upcoming Windows 2000, to benefit from the lower price points for handling better I/O. Brian Valentine, vice president for business on Windows at Microsoft says that up until now, Microsoft was taking a neutral stance and hoping that the two groups would come to a compromise. If the two groups had not compromised, Microsoft would have had to split resources for developing on both architectures. Now, Microsoft is able to continue to push Windows 2000 Server and Datacenter Server further up the enterprise ladder in one architecture, especially since Windows 2000 on Alpha won't exist either.

System I/O will be a switched fabric technology that provides mountains of bandwidth over PCI, the current 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 completed by the end of the year, while servers implementing the architecture won't be out until 2001. Martin Whittaker, research and development manager at HP, says there will be 1, 4 and 12 wire implementations whereby 1 wire will get 500 MB I/O, 4 wires will get around 2 GB I/O and 12 wires will get up to 6 GB I/O.

According to James Gruener, an analyst at Aberdeen Group (www.aberdeen.com), the existence of 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." -- Brian Ploskina

About the Author

Scott Bekker is editor in chief of Redmond Channel Partner magazine.