The news that IBM is taking the legal route to keeping a key executive from joining Apple is a reminder of the high stakes at play in the rarefied world of server development.

According to IT Jungle, Big Blue wants to block Mark Papermaster's move, fearing his expertise could "hurt IBM's server business". I must admit to not having heard of Papermaster - a key figure in designing the Power microprocessor architecture and IBM blade systems, apparently -- but it is the lot of many exceptionally gifted people who tarry in datacentre matters not to have the fame accorded to, say,iPod designer Jonathan Ive. And yet, the largely unknown faces behind leading-edge server design create some of the most important infrastructure engines behind businesses, governments and other organisations today.

The server - or, more correctly today, the server infrastructure -- is the heartbeat of the enterprise, the repository of knowledge and the safe house of the corporate crown jewels. It can make the difference between efficiency and inefficiency, being first to market and being second, between functional supply chains and those that disappoint participants, between customers who stay and buy and those who shuffle off elsewhere. The people who know how to make host machines that excel are few and far between. Look, for example, at the recent fuss about Sun Microsystems co-founder Andy Bechtolsheim and his position at the company. Bechtolsheim was so important to Sun that it created a major storm when Sun bought his startup Kealia to assure his return in 2004. Now, it is critical for Sun to retain the lustre of his attachment.

Outside of a Behtolsheim or luminary like Gene Amdahl you might not know their names, but in their own sectors these people are fabled. No wonder IBM is being so defensive about Papermaster.