Standards to cut blade cost

In their efforts to overcome the technical challenges of blade servers, vendors have tended to go their separate ways. The Server System Infrastructure initiative seeks to find common ground, reports E&T.

As new data centres open, and existing ones upgrade, blade servers are emerging as the predominant processing engines filling their racks. As a result, blades are booming: the market showed signs of acceleration in the first quarter of 2008, with revenue growing 53.7 per cent year-on-year - the fastest growth rate in ten quarters - according to IDC's Worldwide Quarterly Server Tracker.

Overall, bladed servers accounted for $1.2bn sales in the first quarter, representing 9.2 per cent of quarterly server market revenue. Of the vendors, HP kept the top spot with 46.9 per cent market share, with IBM at number two with 30 per cent.

"Server blade vendors have expanded their product portfolios to target new customer markets through chassis design for SMEs, and higher-end workload through non-x86 architectures," says Jed Scaramella, IDC's senior research analyst for enterprise platforms.

Many blade market watchers believe that even greater growth is achievable if the blade industry could introduce more standards for common components, thus driving down cost.

The Server System Infra-structure (SSI) Forum was initiated toward this end. Its proposed Modular Server Specifications are aimed at simplifying product development by providing design guidance that enables server builders to develop compliant and interoperable building blocks at the blade, chassis, power supply and manageability software level.

The SSI Forum was first formed by Intel and a huddling of other OEMs to develop specifications for electronics bays and power supplies for servers; but the group is also now assuming responsibility for a new, more ambitious open standards blades initiative.

The SSI Forum has released for adopter review the set of draft Modular Server Specifications intended to simplify and lower the cost of product development of modular, bladed platforms.

At this point in the standard's development, there are several specification components which collectively will become the "SSI Specifications".

According to Jim Ryan, SSI Forum administrator, some are already "at a very advanced state of completion", requiring only some additional review and formal approval of SSI to be recognised as "1.0" or fully-approved specs.

Available specifications are:
  • Base midplane/backplane design;
  • Base specification for switch module subsystems;
  • Chassis management module (hardware);
  • Compute module specification;
  • Mezzanine card specification;
  • Switch module management specification;
  • System management specifications (software).

These specification can support design starts today which we know are occurring in the EcoSystem.

The Forum plans to become a fully-fledged Special Interest Group (SIG) with members at the Sponsor, Contributor and Adopter level, and working groups, for marketing, architecture spec development, and compliance and interoperability program development, already active. Industry giant Intel threw its weight behind SSI last summer, and soon after declared that it expected the first servers based on the new draft specification might enter the market before the end of 2007, with more products this year as the final version of the specification is released: however, these expectations have proved optimistic.

"Technically, Intel does have an SSI blade in the Modular Server that is in the market," says Ryan, "but, of course, the full SSI SIG and 'ecosystem' needs to be established for true SSI product to be produced."

In respect to delivery expectations, Ryan adds: "We expected the Specifications to be at Rev. 1.0 by the end of the year [2007], with product to follow in 2008; but there have been some delays in spec development, and we wanted to make certain there was a robust [SSI] 'ecosystem' available for the targeted 'building blocks'. In developing the EcoSystem, it also became apparent that linking a shift like this to new product development cycle was desirable."

Due to this, the SSI Forum now expects the first SSI systems to become available in 2009 around the introduction of Intel's next-generation Nehalem processor. 

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