Industry group to challenge Intel's AMT manageability tech, sort of

Bethesda (ML) - As Intel continues to move from plain processors and chipsets to complete platforms with unique features - one of them being Active Management Technology (AMT) - competitors and partners are lining up support for an open standard manageability platform called ASF 2.0. Positioned as an option for AMT, network administrators should count on working with not one but two smart network management standards in the future.

Virtualization and automated network management of a network are most likely the two hottest features in the microprocessor and networking industry that has the potential to create some motivation among corporate buyers to accelerate the IT upgrade cycle to the latest generation of computer products. Intel currently touts its AMT whenever it can, prepping the public for a broad product launch throughout its business-targeted mobile, desktop and enterprise processors.

The benefits of AMT include the integration of automated processes in order to reduce total cost of ownership of individual systems as well as the network as a whole. For example, in the case of virus attacks, single systems can automatically be quarantined, repaired and brought back online. Maintenance work can even be applied to systems that are shut down.

But AMT is not the only smart network management feature that is or will be offered on the market. In fact, similar functionality - although not quite as sophisticated in its details - has been available since June of 2003, when the Distributed Management Task Force (DMTF) announced the Alert Standard Format 2.0 (ASF) specification. There has not been much buzz around ASF 2.0 - which has its origins in the wake-on-LAN idea - in the past two years, but an industry group now has come out strong in support of the standard. The interesting lineup, including Altiris, AMD, Broadcom, Computer Associates, Dell and Hewlett-Packard, announced to "support market education, interoperability testing and certification, and product implementation of ASF 2.0 technology." While you may scratch your head what brought AMD and Dell together in this group - while Intel is missing - the scenario may get even more enticing, if we tell you that Intel is a member of the DMTF and openly supported ASF 2.0 during the spec's announcement a little over two years ago.

If we leave Intel's role aside for the moment, it is clear that every company in this six-member initiative follows different goals with a participation in this group. On the one side there are Intel competitors, on the other there are system and infrastructure companies that are likely to let their customers decide which of the two technologies fits best into their business processes. Another interesting fact is that few of the announcing companies appear to have a clear idea about the other participants' motivation to support this initiative.

One of the very vocal supporters in this group is Broadcom, who is likely to use ASF 2.0 to limit the adoption of Intel's AMT - with good reason. According to Greg Young, vice president and general manager of firm's high speed controller business, Broadcom owns about 63 percent of the networking interface controller market, while Intel hovers around 21 percent in this space. AMT has a potential to change this scenario, if successful. But Young is confident that Intel is on a lonely path with its AMT: "AMT is not gaining a lot of acceptance in the industry. It's not a competitor for ASF 2.0, it's more a distraction in the industry," he said. One could argue that AMT hasn't been rolled out yet as a reason for the lack of industry penetration, but even then has ASF 2.0 a certain advantage of time - as it has been shipping in actual devices with an estimated 75 million units in the field today. "We will use the large installment as the plumbing for ASF 2.0," Young said. Since AMT requires a certain level penetration on a system level to become useful, he expects that the technology will need another 2 years to reach a critical amount of installations.

Young, who worked in Intel's networking division before he came to Broadcom, said that there have been talks with Intel about opening up AMT or make the technology compatible with ASF 2.0. However, he said, "Intel has not a vested interest in ASF 2.0 anymore and no interest in opening the hardware spec up for other manufacturers."

Another company in this group that is likely to use ASF 2.0 to take a shot at Intel is AMD. The company so far did not announce a proprietary counterpart to AMT and is unlikely to do so in the future. But it placed Pacifica, built on open standards, against Intel's virtualization technology and ASF 2.0 would make a great fit as network and client management component. AMD did not comment officially on such speculation, but spokeswoman Sarah Beck said that the company "supports open standards" to provide greater choice to the firm's customers. She conceded that, generally speaking, ASF 2.0 could be seen as a challenger for AMT.

The other group with a potentially different goal in mind includes Dell, HP and Altiris. Altiris spokesman Rhett Glauser told us, the company intends to provide an option to its customers and plans to support both technologies, ASF 2.0 as well as AMT. In a similar way, Dell spokesman Tom Kehoe said the motivation to participate in this group was all about supporting a standard. "We like standards. What we are trying to do here is to establish a standard that already has broad industry support," he said. According to Kehoe, the initiative announced was not so much bout "who is with or against somebody," but rather about the purpose of making ASF 2.0 even more available.

This, of course, leaves open the question, about Intel. According to Martin Reynolds, an analyst with Gartner, firms such as Broadcom "have a problem, if AMT takes off" and therefore need a counterpart. With Intel's marketing and market presence, "AMT will sneak into every desktop and notebook anyway," he said and - at least theoretically - Intel does not need ASF 2.0. Reynolds believes that especially if AMT works in conjunction with Intel's virtualization tech on one platform, the company may have a solution Broadcom cannot match.

As Reynolds, Instat analyst Kevin Krewell believes that there is no motivation for Intel to open up the AMT hardware to other companies or allow compatibility at this time. "They have invested a lot of time and money into this and they see AMT as a competitive advantage," Krewell said. As a result, Intel will capitalize on the technology as much as it can. This, however, may change, if some competitive or market pressure arises, he believes. "If AMT goes against the interest of their customers and Dell or HP would decide to increase the pressure on Intel for some reason, Intel may be forced to open it up."

Intel itself did not directly react to the announcement supporting ASF 2.0. The company however maintains that it is still involved in the DMTF, although in a slightly different context.

"Actually, we created and chaired the PreOS DMTF group that developed ASF, and also co-authored the specs. At this time, the industry direction appears to be forming around Web Services for the next-generation of management solutions, and we're working with Microsoft, Dell and others to standardize Web Services Management in DMTF," said Kevin Cline, Intel's strategic planner for client management and the firm's DMTF board representative as well as DMTF Pre-OS chairman.

For the further development and deployment of ASF appears to be rather passive: "At the same time, we appreciate the efforts being made to support existing ASF installations," Cline said.