Bottleneck Buster Gathers Support

Intel's Infiniband technology should bring servers up to speed on optical nets: Can it also replace Fibre Channel SANs?

August 24, 2000

3 Min Read
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This week, two vendors announced roadmaps for products based on Infiniband, a server bus created by Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) that could increase the throughput and efficiency of optical networks.

Yesterday, Lucent Technologies Inc. (NYSE: LU) unveiled a system chip based on Infiniband. And today, Emulex Corp. (Nasdaq: EMLX) announced an adapter that will link Infiniband servers to Fibre Channel SAN gear from Emulex.

Neither product will ship for months to come. But they are still significant to optical networking for two reasons: First, Infiniband promises to help servers and workstations, which are broadband bottlenecks today, become full participants in the upcoming optical bandwidth boom. And second, some sources, including Intel, Compaq Computer Corp. (NYSE: CPQ), and Dell Computer Corp. (Nasdaq: DELL), think Infiniband could ultimately provide an alternative to Fibre Channel and 10-Gbit/s Ethernet as a short-range link in data centers and central offices.

Today's PCI-based computers, including those running inside routers and switches and those used as server platforms in central offices, are typically limited to handling traffic at a maximum rate of just over 4 Gbit/s. According to Intel, Infiniband will replace this old-fashioned I/0 with a multichannel interface capable of handling from 500 Mbit/s to 6 Gbit/s -- with faster speeds to come.

Intel has built a bandwagon on Infiniband. It's gotten fellow systems vendors Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HWP) and Sun Microsystems Inc. (Nasdaq: SUNW) into its camp, as well as broadband heavyweights Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), Juniper Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: JNPR), Lucent Technologies Inc. (NYSE: LU), and Nortel Networks Corp. (NYSE/TSE: NT). So far, these and about 175 other companies have joined a consortium called the Infiniband Trade Association to promote the cause.Infiniband has universal support as a server bus, but some vendors are predictably resistant to the idea of it as a challenger to 10-Gbit/s Ethernet and Fibre Channel in SANs, data centers, and COs. "The Infiniband target is to replace the PCI bus. That's it. Hype that it has the potential to displace a well-established incumbent technology like Fibre Channel just doesn't make sense," says Jay Kidd, VP of product marketing at Brocade Communications Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: BRCD), the Fibre Channel market leader. Incidentally, Brocade is a member of the Infiniband Trade Association.

"No one wants to replace a technology that works well and costs a lot with one that works marginally better and costs a lot," adds Dan Tanner, senior analyst at the Aberdeen Group. Still, he says that 7 to 10 years down the road, it could prove an alternative when it's time to replace an initial Fibre Channel or 10-Gbit/s Ethernet investment.

Others see Infiniband's significance to carriers as more immediate. "Infiniband opens up the most accessible computer architecture to telecom," says Nayel Shafei, president of Enkido Inc., a startup carrier. "I think it's absolutely great. And I like that everyone's fighting about it. That means that something good will come of it. The carrier will win in the end."

-- Mary Jander, senior editor, Light Reading

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