At the Servertech 99 conference in San Jose on Tuesday, supporters of the two competing server I/O standards, 'Future I/O' and 'Next Generation I/O', hinted at the possibility of a merged standard.
Stepping out of his role as moderator of a panel discussion at Servertech, Dataquest analyst Kimball Brown urged the panellists to make concessions and apparently met with some success.
The PCI is not fast enough to support the I/O needs of next generation processors such as the Intel Merced, which is due to ship late next year. Most vendors agree that the industry must move to a fabric switched I/O architecture. But a dispute on who will control this next generation technology has caused a major rift in the server industry.
Intel and Sun are among the supporters of Next Generation I/O (NGIO). Compaq, HP and IBM have joined up to propose their own alternative: Future I/O (FIO).
Kimball Brown said the problem is not technology but rather business models. Intel wants a widely available standard for fast I/O, because this will allow the company to sell more of its high margin server chips. HP, Compaq and IBM, by contrast, want to be able to differentiate their server products, which are at risk of being commoditised.
While HP, Compaq and IBM will all support IA-64, they hope to differentiate in the area of I/O. Their FIO is expected to be somewhat faster than NGIO, but to ship in 2001 - about a year later than NGIO.
Another point of contention: the FIO trio believes that the industry should first move to an intermediary technology, PCI-X. But the NGIO supporters say there is no need for this souped-up version of the PCI bus.
"We would like to see convergence [of NGIO and FIO]," said Bob Selinger, vice president and chief technologist of Adaptec, a company which has said it would support both standards.
Representatives of IBM and Compaq were more guarded in their comments. "I would not categorically reject compromise," said Tom Bradnich, IBM's director of Netfinity architecture and design.
Compaq's Ken Jansen, director of advanced server architecture and design, sounded equally prudent. "We have to be very careful with how we move," he said.
According to Jansen, the PCI-X standard will, "give us the time to reach a compromise," but that idea did not appeal to Sun's Balint Fleischer. He said PCI-X does not offer sufficient performance, and Sun is in a hurry to move to fabric I/O.
"The reason we decided to support NGIO [rather than FIO] is very pragmatic," said Fleischer, who represents Sun in the NGIO Forum - NGIO is the closest to completion, he explained.
But all speakers agreed that NGIO and FIO can be reconciled on a technical level, and both sides are also moving closer on intellectual property issues and on who will actually control the standards.
After some prodding from Kimball Brown, IBM s Bradnich said: "Could it be resolved? It is my opinion that yes it is possible." Bradnich said a joint standard might be delivered some time between the NGIO timeframe and that of FIO. But, despite some further pressing from Brown, the panellists did not set a date for an NGIO/FIO reconciliation meeting.
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