Intel Corp. on Nov. 13 will unveil a new processor and chip set designed for use in high-density "blade" servers, sources said, but what was once considered a hot new market has so far received a cold shoulder from customers.
Intel first announced its intention to go after the emerging market for highly compact rack-mounted servers in March. At that time, several startup companies had attracted widespread industry attention with their plans to ship a compact server design, called blades.
Blade servers essentially consist of a processor, chip set and memory on a motherboard, with multiple blades designed to fit into rack-mounted chassis. For example, startup RLX Technologies Inc. this year introduced a design that can pack up to 324 server blades into a industry-standard rack originally designed to hold 42 servers.
During the fall Comdex show in Las Vegas, Intel will unveil a new low-power Pentium III-S processor and accompanying chip set that computer makers can package into their upcoming ultradense designs. Compaq Computer Corp., Dell Computer Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co. have already revealed plans to introduce blade products in the coming months, with those designs likely to be based on Intel architecture.
Intels newest processor will be a low-voltage version of the Pentium III-S design, which it first shipped this summer. Low-power, cooler-running processors are critical to enable computer makers to package literally hundreds of chips into compact designs.
The desire for such chips spurred some startup blade companies, such as RLX, of The Woodlands, Texas, to use processors from another relatively new company, Transmeta Inc., in their systems. The new systems marked the first time Transmetas Crusoe processors, originally designed for mobile computers, were integrated into servers.
Intel, of Santa Clara, Calif., will also introduce a new low-power chip set for use in blade servers. The design is said to be similar to the 830 mobile chip set, but will include error correction coding (ECC), a common feature found on most servers that helps assure system stability.
In first announcing its blade plans in March, Intel said its mobile chip sets could be used for blade servers despite their lack of ECC.
"Those are some of the tradeoffs that people make as they consider ultradense," said Mike Fister, general manager of Intels enterprise platforms group.
But Intel has apparently abandoned that idea after analysts and customers strongly disagreed.
"If you want us to put this in our enterprise, you better make it enterprise-class," Joel Salamone, MIS director for The Motley Fools Web site, Fool.com, in Alexandria, Va., said shortly after Intels announcement in March.
Kevin Krewell, an analyst with Cahners In-Stat/MDR, in Sunnyvale, Calif., agreed last week that mobile chip sets were not ideally suited for servers.
"If you want the best reliability in a server, you really want ECC on your main memory," Krewell said.
While the blade configuration is far less robust than previous rack-mounted servers, the compact design is seen as well-suited for handling simple applications, such as serving Web pages, and therefore was targeted as Internet service providers and large data centers.
Earlier this year, market research firm International Data Corp. predicted that sales for such devices would dramatically increase in coming years, with vendors shipping 2 million blade servers worth $102 billion in 2005.
However, high hopes that the servers would prove a hot seller this year have been dashed as a slumping U.S. economy and wariness about the new design have dampened sales.
Despite its brief existence, the blade server market has already seen a number of business failures. Among them are Canadian-based Rebel.com and FiberCycle Networks, based in Los Gatos, Calif. Both companies folded only months after unveiling Transmeta-based blade designs.
Perhaps the highest profile among new blade companies is RLX, which features a number of former senior Compaq executives on its staff, including Gary Stimac, one of the founders of Compaq and former head of its server division.
But in August, RLX announced it also was hurt by lower than expected sales and said it would lay off 17 percent of its staff. Recently, the company announced a major shakeup of its top management that resulted in the departure of its chief operating officer and chief financial officer.