A group of server vendors led by Intel is to launch a new effort to create standard ways of building and managing blade and rack servers next week at the Intel Developer Forum, in San Jose, California.

Initiative members, which will include rival server vendors Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM, will announce plans to develop common software APIs (application programming interfaces), hardware interconnects and form factors for the high-density servers, industry sources said.

In a speech at OracleWorld in San Francisco on Monday, Dell Chief Executive Officer Michael Dell hinted at the initiative, saying his company was "in discussions with some fairly large computer companies to get some agreement on a standard blade architecture." According to Dell's CEO, the lack of such standards for blade servers was one reason why industry analyst companies have recently lowered their estimates of blade server sales. "This thing's going to go nowhere unless you get a standard," he said.

In 2001 IDC was expecting blade server sales to hit US$4.5 billion by 2005. It has since revised that estimate to $2.5 billion.

Though many components in blade and rack mount servers are built on industry standard components, there are many points on which the design of these new servers can differ, said Illuminata analyst Jonathan Eunice. For example, the different types of chassis that blade servers slide into are based on proprietary designs, he said, and the dimensions of the different blade and rack mount servers themselves can vary widely. "Everyone agrees that 1U is 1.75 inches tall. Great. How deep is it?" he asked.

Though she had no comment on the specifics of the modular computing initiative, Dell's director of global alliance software marketing, Laura Bosworth-Bucher, said Monday there were a number of specific areas in blade computing that required standardisation.

"Dell believes there has to be some sort of standardisation to increase the volume market," she said. "We believe for blades to be standardised there has to be a common power supply, power source, a consistent chassis and consistent management."

An initiative like the modular computing initiative could begin to have an impact years down the line, but Eunice was sceptical about any immediate results from such an effort, especially in the realm of blade computing. "There simply isn't enough economic pressure right now to consolidate the market," he said.

Vendors such as HP and IBM are not motivated to make their blade servers truly interchangeable at this early point, because that would open up the field to smaller vendors, he said.

"When the eventual standard comes out, all of those wonderful, highly innovative second-tier vendors get a lot of opportunity," he said. "I think HP and IBM want to come to the table from a position of strength, not as an equal with a $20 million motherboard producer."

That reasoning will keep prevent true standardisation of blade computers for at least the next couple of years, despite what the vendors may promise next week, Eunice said.