InfiniBand Group Sharply, Evenly Divided

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Months after half of the founding members of the InfiniBand Trade Association put
aside infinite bandwidth (define) because they deemed it
impractical at this juncture in IT, the other half rallied around the once
ballyhooed technology, and pledged to bring products to the fore next year.

Systems vendors IBM, Sun Microsystems and Dell Thursday are the remaining major
torch-bearers for the high-speed switch fabric architecture (speeding up
communications between servers and networked devices at 10
gigabytes-per-second), while Microsoft, Intel and HP
have taken themselves out of the mix — for now.

The latter trio has said they don’t see high enough adoption rates to
warrant a great embrace, arguing, among other things, that customers will
not rip out old servers containing the PCI architecture (define) to
replace them with InfiniBand servers in this era of incredibly shrunken
budgets. The former trio said hardware and software products utilizing the
technology are forthcoming.

With the promise of juiced-up application performance once luring many
infrastructure firms, InfiniBand offers features for I/O interconnects,
including a mechanism to share I/O components among many servers. The
architecture is designed to create a more efficient way to connect storage,
communications networks and server clusters together. InfiniBand is also
designed to integrate with Ethernet and Fiber Channel infrastructure.

IBM, Sun and Dell said they will add the technology for various aspects of
their server lines. Dr. Tom Bradicich, chief technology officer of IBM’s
xSeries servers, said his Armonk, N.Y.-based firm will enable an InfiniBand
switched network that includes a host channel adapter, switch, and a fabric
management on its eServer xSeries line. Moreover, for its next
generation of mid-range and high-end Unix servers, IBM is developing a
common clustering interconnect and IPC fabric using InfiniBand I/O. With
this, Bradicich said, Big Blue’s customers will be able to satisfy
application requirements for high-performance computing and server

Sun and Dell see InfiniBand as vital parts of their future server
technologies. Round Rock, Texas’ Dell will fit its PowerEdge modular blades
with the architecture and is currently testing InfiniBand cluster solutions
in its labs, as well as teaming with its myriad hardware and software
partners to increase support for the technology.

Sun might be leaning on InfiniBand the most, according to some analysts, as
it plans to use InfiniBand as the linchpin of its N1 strategy
to make many computers work together. Subodh Bapat, CTO of volume systems
products at Sun, said his Santa Clara, Calif. firm plans to plaster
InfiniBand technology across its server platforms, application environments,
switches and storage. Future InfiniBand-based platforms are expected to
include Sun’s blade servers in 2004 and enterprise servers and will add it
to storage virtualization and aggregation products and controllers. On the
software front, Sun plans to use InfiniBand to enhance Sun Open Net
Environment (Sun ONE) products for Web services.

The bulls and the bears of InfiniBand

Why are IBM, Sun and Dell speaking up now? In a nutshell, InfiniBand has
suffered from a deluge of bad publicity in the last several months since the
other half put aside their InfiniBand endeavors. To be sure, Enterprise Storage Group
Senior Analyst Arun Taneja said he was asked six months ago if the
low-latency technology was dead. Not in the least bit, Taneja said.

“I think it’s a big mistake for Microsoft to back away from InfiniBand, or
put it on the back-burner as they have,” Taneja said. “Microsoft, as well as
all of its partners, probably has the most to win from InfiniBand because
fundamentally it is a technology that will allow standard Intel-based
servers to be ganged up and produce performance that the largest Intel
server is not capable of producing.”

Microsoft submitted this statement:

“In the current economic climate, IT managers are gravitating towards
evolutionary technologies that leverage existing infrastructure and
staffing,” the company said. “The emphasis today is on efficiency not
expansion, incremental growth not wholesale replacement. Although we have decided to discontinue developing native IB support, we will continue to enable third parties to deploy Windows IB solutions. As we do with other leading edge
technologies, we will monitor the industry interest in InfiniBand and apply
necessary resources to meet customer and partner demand.”

Instead, Microsoft endorsed Ethernet technologies: “Gigabit and 10 Gigabit Ethernet technologies meet most customers’ needs and deliver the very best price/performance, even if they don’t provide the absolute best performance. There are a number of types of
applications (databases, high performance computing) that effectively
utilize the capabilities of IB but these applications work best in a
completely optimized environment that’s best provided by third parties.”

Karl Walker, vice president of technological development/CTO of hardware for
HP’s Industry Standard Servers unit, echoed Microsoft’s philosophy that
InfiniBand is just not practical at this point and said it is simply too
risky a proposition.

“We saw InfiniBand go through the hype curve,” Walker said. “Two years ago
at this time, it was supposed to be the be all-end-all of fabric and storage
interconnect. I can’t speak in detail about why the others [Microsoft and
Intel] dropped away, but we don’t see a mass market in the near term. Who
knows where it might go in the future? But we pulled back when we learned it
wasn’t going to hit the volume level of our expectations. We do see it as
something that could be successful in the specialized markets, such as in
high-performance clustering and as [an architecture] for replacing
proprietary interconnect technologies. We’re taking a wait-and see kind of

Walker said HP is playing it safe by using other fabrics, such as TCP/IP
(define) and Fibre Channel

“We see customers who already have investments in technologies as augmenting
their infrastructure with InfiniBand, but not replacing it entirely,” Walker
said. “As far as making InfiniBand the interconnect on specific systems such
as blade servers, that is extremely risky, because you need to make a
multi-year, multi-generational bet.”

Some firms are confident in InfiniBand’s ability to flourish. Yankee Group,
a firm bullish on InfiniBand’s prospects, predicts that 42 percent of all
servers shipped will be InfiniBand-enabled by 2005, with the market
increasing from $32 million in 2002 to more than $1.53 billion in 2006.

Indeed, Enterprise Storage Group’s Taneja sees only benefits for HP and
others to take up InfiniBand.

“The hardware is relatively inexpensive and you get practically a
supercomputing type of performance, with low latency,” Taneja said. “That’s
where the biggest win is. For the life of me I can’t understand why HP would
back away from it, especially since they want to make a larger dent in the
high-end enterprise. For Intel-based folks such as Microsoft and HP, this is
a mechanism to get the big performance that they’ve not been able to deliver
so far.”

As for Sun, Taneja said it is a bit more complicated, but perhaps more
important because the firm is banking heavily on InfiniBand to shore up N1.

“The defensive part is if Intel scales into their space [Unix market] they
would lose some of that,” Taneja said. “The offensive part of it is that
they are already operating at this level, so now they are ganging up [with
IBM and Dell] to operate at a higher level.”

As for the strategy overall, Taneja said IBM’s Sun’s and Dell’s embrace
could hold nothing but positives for the future. Moreover, their involvement
and success could force Microsoft, Intel and HP to “wake up.”

The value prop in InfiniBand is much too great to be thrown away,” Taneja
said. “You can kick it and harass it, but you can’t kill it.”

Another analyst, Enterprise Management
Anne Skamarock, wasn’t as sure the dissenters were doing the
wrong thing by not joining IBM, Sun and Dell for the colossal InfiniBand
hug. There are risks, she said, and it takes time to put the proper
infrastructure in place to commit to InfiniBand.

“All major transitions in technology are risky,” Skamarock said. “Why does
it seem more so now? All businesses hope to have a fairly quick return on
investment. In this economy, investing in major technology changes doesn’t
seem to provide the ROI most companies (and stockholders) hope to receive.

Skamarock said the architecture of using InfiniBand for blade servers that
can scale as the business requirements grow is a powerful architecture.

“However, to become a reality in an IT department, a great deal of work must
be done at all levels of the “system” to make it easier to deploy and
manage. If the customer expects an application to participate (that is,
scale with the addition of processing power), the application must be made
“aware” of this capability. The number of applications that can take
advantage of this today is fairly small (Oracle parallel server and
scientific apps that have parallel processing capabilities come to mind off
the bat). To make a applications work in a parallel fashion usually takes a
complete architecture overhaul… not something most applications vendors
are willing to do.”

The analyst said another environment that InfiniBand-powered blades could be
used is in server consolidation.

“The servers are now tightly coupled and scalable. This environment requires
significant integrated management software capabilities to gain the greatest
benefit (primarily automation so the customer doesn’t have to hire an army
to manage the entire infrastructure; servers, storage network [SAN] and
LAN). What SANs have taught us is flexibility and scalability come at a
complexity price… the only way to manage complexity is through
automation. We’re not quite there yet.”

Skamarock’s final answer?

“Do I support a move to IB by server vendors? Yep. I think the IB protocol
solves A LOT of I/O issues in a clean way. Do I think the IB evolution is to
a drop-in state? Nope. It’s going to take time to evolve the applications
and management software to be able to leverage the technology.”

This story originally appeared in

Clint Boulton
Clint Boulton
Clint Boulton is an Enterprise Storage Forum contributor and a senior writer for covering IT leadership, the CIO role, and digital transformation.

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