HILLSBORO, Ore. Citing concerns about Intel Corp.'s approach to open standards, three top PC server makers are refusing to endorse an Intel effort to define a next-generation computer I/O architecture.
It's not yet clear whether Compaq, IBM and Hewlett-Packard will hammer out a unified response or separate counterproposals to Intel's so-called NGIO, which Intel rolled out at a high-profile conference earlier this month. But the trio is sending signals that it takes issue with both business and technology aspects of the Intel plan.
"You've got to sign an adopters' agreement before you see a copy of the NGIO spec, but by signing you give up your right to any intellectual property in the spec," said one source familiar with the agreement.
All sides say they want to avoid a "bus war" in what they agree is an important migration from such memory-mapped bus architectures as PCI to a new scheme based on faster and more robust switching fabrics. "There are a lot of discussions going on at multiple levels," said Karl Walker, vice president of technology development for Compaq's enterprise computing group. "NGIO is a radical shift in I/O and needs broad support to be successful."
Walker would not comment on reports that Compaq is developing a proposal, reportedly dubbed Switched PCI, that would link a switching fabric to a server's memory controller and could attach natively to I/O devices or to a PCI-X bridge. But he did say his chief concern about Intel's NGIO is that it is not governed by an open industry group.
"Until we see such a structure we will not take on a new standard," Walker said. As for technical issues with NGIO, "there are some details, but they are not unsolvable."
"HP is committed to openly developed standards, and it's not immediately obvious that NGIO is one of these," said an HP source who asked not to be named. HP's components group has reportedly signed an NGIO adopters' agreement, though HP's systems unit still takes issue with the initiative.
In an attempt to woo the top server makers into the NGIO fold, Intel has said it will set up an open steering committee structured on the one-company, one-vote model. "We are committed to that, but the details are not final," said Mitch Shults, director of server-platform marketing at Intel (Beaverton, Ore.).
The I/O debate is already creating some strange bedfellows. Intel rival Sun Microsystems is one of 35 companies that has signed an adopters' agreement on NGIO, with a senior Sun engineer going so far as to don an Intel T-shirt and give a keynote at the NGIO launch in San Diego earlier this month. But sources indicate Intel still lacks endorsements from major systems-software companies, including Microsoft Corp., which said it is talking with Intel about NGIO but has yet to sign an adopters' agreement.
Intel has signaled its willingness to negotiate the NGIO proposal to win the support of the three server makers. If the two camps don't come to some agreement, the server makers have not ruled out pushing forward their own proposal, as they have done with the interim PCI-X spec.
NGIO proposes a new technique for handling PC server I/O based on a switching fabric with separate host and target controller adapters and without interference by a host processor. It is aimed at high-end systems as an ultimate replacement for PCI, though it would not hit the market until perhaps 2001.
PCI-X is a new implementation for 64-bit PCI that allows more loads per bus and higher speeds up to 133 MHz than the current PCI spec. It is working its way toward approval through the PCI Special Interest Group and could hit the market late next year.
One source said PC server makers fear Intel is moving too rapidly, and they want to upgrade I/O gradually from PCI rather than break abruptly with the past via a completely new architecture. "We're trying to find a clean upgrade path," the senior engineer said. "When you get right down to it, that's the issue."
Intel is standing firm on the need for a single link layer in NGIO and has already proposed a 1.0 specification for that piece of the plan. But Shults left the door open to some negotiation. "There needs to be just one link layer, but our current offer is to let them define optional extensions to spec that might include royalty fees for extra robust features.
"The technology is really secondary to the fundamental question of how to define and promote such an industry standard," said Shults. "That's where we are at odds."
Both Shults and Walker said any final standard must be available royalty-free. But Shults suggested some of the server makers want to leverage their existing intellectual property into the spec and possibly charge royalties for it on an "open and non-discriminatory basis." Those royalties could amount to 1 percent to 5 percent of the price of the end product, he speculated.
IBM had previously stated it was exploring a unique "X architecture" for its future PC servers that would marry Wintel technologies with its own legacy techniques from its S/390, AS/400 and RS/6000 systems, including an undefined technology it dubbed Future I/O.
But it's not clear if IBM would use Future I/O just in its own systems or try to license it broadly to the industry. IBM did not return calls by press time.
"If IBM feels that the centerpiece of its proposal is a link-layer technology, they are full of it," said one source who asked not to be named. "That just means they have an engineer somewhere insisting on his particular link technology and holding the whole process hostage."
For its part, Sun was approaching a decision on whether to commercialize a new I/O scheme based on the IEEE P2100 standard proposal-which borrows ideas from both the Scalable Coherent Interconnect and 1394 when it decided to explore reports that Intel was in development on its own I/O concept. After discussions, "we decided Intel's goals were so similar there was no point in creating yet another bus standard," said Balint Fleischer, director of architecture and technology for Sun's workgroup systems, who ultimately got approval from Sun's CTO to endorse NGIO and who spoke out in favor of the scheme at Intel's San Diego rollout. Sun is in the midst of architectural work on a host controller linking NGIO to a future Ultrasparc.
Intel has named only a handful of the 35 supporters it claims have signed adopters' agreements for NGIO.