With new blade server standards initiatives and new entrants vying for attention, you might be forgiven for thinking that the market was consolidating. Not a bit of it - not yet anyway.
Market research company Gartner has long punted its technology hype cycle, which charts how technologies move from initial breakthrough or product launch, up towards the top of the curve to the peak of inflated expectations, followed by a plunge down the trough of disillusionment, which flattens into the slope of enlightenment, finishing on the plateau of productivity.
Blade servers, about which so much has been said and written in recent years, could be starting to edge towards the plateau of productivity. While initial signs were that the market would be like most other nascent technology markets - that is, somewhat chaotic - things are starting to settle down somewhat. But that doesn't mean the market is about to witness a major shake-out to the point where we see a comfortable duopoly in charge.
In terms of major player, HP and IBM have carved out leadership positions. It's unclear which is ahead in terms of revenues or sales - it's almost neck-and-neck with IBM just ahead, depending on who you believe - but both are well-established players in the server business.
However, there's a lot to play for as there's little in the way of standardisation. Once you've bought into vendor X's system, you're locked in.
How so? Think IBM PC. After the launch of the original, 8086-based mode, dozens of competing PCs appeared, many of which contained the same or similar chips as the original - 80186 anyone? What many weren't was entirely binary compatible. You needed a version of MS-DOS tweaked for each hardware platform: Apricot had one, DEC had one, and of course the granddaddy, IBM, had one. And then through market pressures, the others either faded away or were persuaded that they weren't going to corner a little piece of the market on their own and it would be smarter to join everyone else and compete on price and features rather than exclusivity.
Blades are going through a similar process. Standardisation will involve unified management software and hardware specifications, and will in theory lower the barriers to entry. And if you want proof as to how attractive the market is to those not already in it, note that Tatung, unknown under its own name in this area but more visible in the digital consumer product market, recently announced that it was about to launch a blade server. It's aiming to capture up to 10 per cent of the market, it said. Clearly it wants to make its mark before those with shallower pockets do so. Cue hollow laughter.
Last month, HP unveiled its BladeSystem, a package of hardware and software services that reduce the number of pieces you need to build an HP-standard system. IBM and Intel have gone a step further and announced BladeCenter, a collaboration to build an open standard in the hope that other vendors will develop products that meet it.
Sceptics said that it's not going to happen. Gartner analyst John Enck was reported as saying that, "While Intel and IBM are trying to create a de-facto standard, this is not truly an industry standard. Blade technology remains highly proprietary and will remain so for many years."
Meanwhile IBM and Intel forge onwards. This last week has seen the announcement by the pair that things are going rather well, in that almost 50 companies have received the BladeCenter specification. Well, the spec was offered for free, so that's not difficult.
Instead, what we have is two companies with a spec that they hope others will follow. HP on the other hand points out that the Blade Systems Alliance and the DMTF (Desktop Management Task Force) have entered into an alliance to advance blade system standards.
Meanwhile, the high-sounding announcement over a year ago from a number of blade vendors, who were launching a new effort to create ways of building and managing blade and rack servers, has had zero effect.
So moves towards standardisation aren't quite as cut and dried as IBM and Intel would have us believe. What's more, other blade vendors such as Sun are still doing very well thank you, with little incentive to throw their lot (and their expensive, proprietary technology) in with other, lesser mortals.
So, it seems unlikely that standards will emerge anytime soon. I'll take the Enck line for the moment.
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