It's just over a year since IBM set up an organisation designed to form what tech companies have started calling "an ecosystem" around its blade server products. An organisation consisting of IBM plus a number of vendors of associated hardware and software, Blade.org was set up with the aim of making IBM the default choice for blades -- and, interestingly, arch-rival HP has just set up something very similar.
Naturally, the ethos of such an organisation fits right in with Big Blue's current espousal of being open and inclusive -- unlike the bad, old IBM.
A year ago, on Blade.org's launch, we pointed out that, ever since blades appeared on the scene, there's been a battle raging to become the vendor whose blade chassis occupies that coveted spot. We then asked: has IBM done enough?
The first task is to look at the numbers -- and the blade server market is arguably the most watched and certainly the fastest growing area of the server business. A year ago, IBM was the leader in the field of blade servers -- although it and HP are very closely matched in terms of overall server revenues, if the last quarter's financial figures from research firm Gartner are to be believed.
One year on, things have reversed, with HP owning 41 per cent against IBM's 35 per cent. And in the UK, HP claims clear leadership with a 60 per cent share, according to HP blade server product manager Phil McLean. Meanwhile Sun and Dell trail, making do with the crumbs remaining from IBM and HP's table. Don't feel too sorry, though, as they're pretty big crumbs:
Industry analyst IDC reckoned that the overall blade server market grew by a chunky 29.7 per cent compared to the same quarter of 2006. And IDC predicts the blade server market will grow from $2 billion to $11 billion by 2010.
And if you doubted the importance of blades, to the participants at least, IBM and HP have been slinging verbal mudballs at each other -- like rival football fans on either side of the pitch -- for at least two years now. It's not small beer.
Where Blade.org enters the picture is when you start to look at the peripherals, if you will. The company sees the organisation, which it describes as "a collaborative organisation and developer community", as key to establishing IBM as a clear leader in the market.
Effectively Big Blue is bidding to become the de facto market standard, as IBM's senior server consultant Tikiri Wanduragala agrees, by making its platform more attractive to develop for.
And by some accounts it's succeeding. Starting with a handful of companies, Blade.org now encompasses 92 companies, with IBM blade VP Doug Balog keen to point out that, since opening the BladeCenter specifications, 400 companies have downloaded them. He also said that over 50 venture capital firms have invested nearly $1 billion in Blade.org member companies.
IBM sees it as attractive to users too. It argues that such an organisation will "foster a collaborative community of customers and members to expand the blade ecosystem, and accelerate the growth and adoption of technologies and solutions".
To that end, it recently set up a customer advisory board with the aim of collaborating with customers to find out what they want from blade server technology, especially outside the US.
Balog argues that the organisation has been a huge success. Though originally seeded by IBM, the organisation is now self-funding, with contributions from member companies sufficient to keep it afloat. This helps prevent it from being perceived as a purely IBM-financed body, Big Blue reckons.
And although IBM spearheaded Blade.org, not all members are developing directly for an IBM product platform. They also collaborate with each other on approaches to the market that don't involve IBM. "It's not about a one-to-one relationship with IBM, its about many-to-many relationships," Balog said.
But if this model is so successful, why haven't IBM's rivals joined in? Balog said that IBM would be delighted if HP et al were to join Blade.org -- though the odds of that happening appear to be about the same as Microsoft making Windows open source. Even though other server vendors are members, IBM's three main competitors are conspicuous by their absence.
To do so would open up the specifications of their systems to IBM and to each other. However, were this to happen, end users would surely gain.
Instead, HP recently set up its own organisation, Blade Connect, with a claimed 255 developers on board. It's broadly equivalent to Blade.org but HP positions it slightly differently. HP's blade product manager Phil McLean says that while Blade.org wants to set up an industry standard on BladeCenter and Intel, "we recognise that everyone has different views, and we try to provide access to our technology.
"We want to create a community where we have the best environment and supporting technology and deliver best value to our customers. But customers have to decide not the industry. Yes we hope that our technology becomes a standard. We've driven standards in x86 and hope to do so in blades, but it's about critical mass."
IBM calls Blade.org a success. But from a more detached perspective, it seems clearer that the fight for hearts and minds across the spectrum, from hardware and software developers to customers and industry watchers and analysts has yet to be won. While HP is ahead in terms of blade server revenues, both companies claim technology leadership in many areas.
There's clearly a lot further to go in this area of the server market and Blade.org is crucial to IBM's efforts to help improve its position.
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