10-GigE Hits Express Lane

10-GigE adapters are at least a year away as a viable storage option

February 26, 2005

3 Min Read
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Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) and a handful of startups are hoping to be driving the bus when 10-Gigabit Ethernet gives iSCSI an anticipated performance boost.

Here's the problem: With Fibre Channel bandwidth rising from 2-Gbit/s to 4-Gbit/s, IP SANs based on 1-Gbit/s iSCSI will be at a serious performance disadvantage -- that is, until 10-GigE is affordable enough to make it a viable option in low-cost systems. (See SGI Targets First in 4-Gig and FCIA Holds 4GFC Plugfest.) The 10-GigE adapter vendors hope to have their foot in the door when that happens.

Neterion Inc. announced this week that it plans to have the first 10-GigE PCI Express adapter going to OEMs next quarter (see Neterion Goes 10-GigE PCI Express and S2io Becomes Neterion). But word has it another startup, NetEffect, also has a 10-GigE PCI Express adapter sampling with OEMs.

Compatibility with PCI Express is what makes these adapters possible storage accessories. Where all devices on a parallel PCI-X bus share bandwidth, serially architected PCI Express allocates a specific amount of bandwidth per device. That improves its scaleability, quality-of-service potential, and latency, making it a better choice for storage than PCI-X, analysts say.

Of course, a market for 10-Gbit/s Ethernet adapters as part of IP SANs can't happen until 10-Gbit/s Ethernet itself drops in price. But Neterion is banking on that eventually happening.At least one analyst is confident of 10-Gbit/s Ethernet's future in IP SANs: 10-GigE won’t drive iSCSI per se,” he says. “Software, economics, and performance will drive iSCSI. But certainly for iSCSI to penetrate the high-volume market, 10-GigE has to be there,” says Bob Wheeler, senior analyst at The Linley Group consultancy.

Neterion is trying to cover all the bus bases. It has adapters that support all three major bus architectures: PCI-X 1.0, PCI-X 2.0, and PCI Express. CEO Dave Zabrowski predicts all will be around for a while, but PCI Express will be the long-term winner. “PCI Express will probably be the workhorse for the next ten years,” he says.

Neterion could have an edge over NetEffect in being first to market with 10-GigE PCI Express because it already has OEM deals for its PCI-X adapters with Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HPQ) and other server companies.

Zabrowski says Neterion has OEM deals that he can’t announce for PCI Express adapters, and he expects them to show up in severs and storage products in the second half of the year. “We’ll see this get more and more important as iSCSI gains acceptance,” he says.

NetEffect hasn’t announced a PCI Express adapter and didn’t respond to questions by press time. However, it did claim it would support PCI Express and PCI-X when it entered the 10-GigE arena last November (see NetEffect Debuts 10-Gig Adapters).Intel, the titan of the 10-GigE adapter field, is taking a wait-and-see approach on PCI Express. An Intel spokesman says its 10-GigE PCI-X adapter is selling well, and the company expects to ship 10-GigE PCI Express “as 10-gig really starts to take hold in the data center.”

Yet another 10-GigE adapter startup, Chelsio Communications Inc., says it has no plans for PCI Express. A Chelsio spokesman says the startup believes the best way to improve adapter performance is through protocol acceleration of TCP rather than via faster bus architectures. Chelsio uses a TCP offload engine (TOE) to reduce strain on servers (see Chelsio Chalks Up $25M).

When will 10-GigE catch on in IP SANs? The jury's out. Zabrowski says 10-GigE costs about five times as much as Gigabit Ethernet, and he predicts it has to drop to about three times the cost of 1-Gig before it catches on in IP SANs. And he doesn’t think that will happen this year.

— Dave Raffo, Senior Editor, Byte and Switch

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