Infiniband demo shows future of computer architectures

The high-speed interconnect will revolutionise the way we buy computers - and this week saw its first successful demonstration
Written by Ken Popovich, Contributor

A new high-speed interconnect technology designed to boost bandwidth inside data centers and slated to debut this winter reached a significant milestone in its development this week.

But questions remain whether the new I/O, backed by an array of high-tech heavyweights, offers any significant advantages over established architectures, such as Ethernet and Fiber Channel.

Infiniband's channel-based, switched fabric architecture is designed to provide a chassis-to-chassis high-speed link between servers and storage devices. The scalable architecture will offer performance up to 6G bps, which is far greater than the standard PCI (peripheral component interconnect) bus commonly used today.

However, Infiniband's speed advantage could quickly disappear with the next-generation designs of existing I/Os, such as 10G-bps Ethernet, which is expected to debut by the end of 2003.

Still, Infiniband's support is impressive. While more than 200 companies make up the Infiniband Trade Association, its real clout is derived from its seven founding members: Compaq, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Intel, Microsoft and Sun.

This week, Infiniband proponents gathered at a trade association meeting in Orlando, Florida, and touted a key achievement in the development of the new switch fabric I/O, a demonstration showing it running enterprise-class database applications for the first time.

The promotion, showing servers running IBM's DB2 Universal Database V7.2 and Linux kernel 2.4, was sponsored by Intel, Dell, IBM and Qlogic Corp.

"It's a pretty big milestone for us," said Phil Brace, director of platform marketing for Intel's Fabric Components Division.

"Last year, we were just talking about the specifications and the architecture, then we sampled our first silicon chips, in February we showed it handling simple file transfers," he said. "Now, we're demonstrating real applications that are run in the enterprise. It gives credibility to the strength of the architecture and the progress we've made in developing it."

While Infiniband is only months away from its formal introduction in new server and storage hardware, Brace admitted it could take years for the new design to take hold in the marketplace.

"Certainly, we're not out to change the Earth overnight," he said. "Where you're going to see Infiniband adopted is in the new or expanding infrastructures. ... I don't think you're necessarily going to have people rewire their data centers."

But Infiniband's value to customers is still questionable, said Bert McComas, an analyst with InQuest Market Research.

"The technology itself is spectacular, but do we need it?" McComas asked. "Is the Internet collapsing for lack of this technology? No, it is not."

Infiniband's greatest potential involves its use in clustering together multiple systems, he said, but that's not something data centers will likely be doing for at least the next five to ten years.

If that proves to be true, then data center managers may judge Infiniband based solely on price and performance, where McComas sees little advantage.

"I'd like to give a gold medal to the guy who's going to benchmark this and prove that it is better," he said.

Nevertheless, McComas said, "There is no doubt in my mind that it will take hold, even if it holds no real advantage over Ethernet and Fiber Channel.

"Basically, many things in the data center are insurance policies, and Infiniband will be one of those," he added. "It's going to be sold on the promise of all the things that it's going to deliver, even though it's not going to deliver those things at first."

According to a new report issued by IDC, a weak US economy, advances in alternative I/Os as well as a lack of public awareness may also hamper Infiniband's adoption.

A spokesman for Google, provider of the popular Internet search engine that utilizes more than 8,000 servers, acknowledged that the company currently has no interest in Infiniband.

"It's not something we're focused on, looking at or pondering in any way," said the representative for the Mountain View, Calif., company.

InfiniBand's best initial opportunity, IDC said, probably exists in the midrange and high-end server markets. However, those markets represent less than 10 percent of total server unit sales.

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