Can Topspin Boot Egenera?

InfiniBand startup says it can boot blade servers faster. Rivals say, 'So?'

March 9, 2004

3 Min Read
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Topspin Communications Inc. claims it can use InfiniBand gear to build virtualization blade servers that will drive utility computing.

If you believe the Topspin spin, this technology gives it a big jump on its InfiniBand rivals, plus the leverage to slam the virtualization door on startup Egenera Inc.

But executives for Egenera and InfiniBand rival Voltaire Inc. contend that Topspin's latest technology gives it no real advantage.

Let's take it from the top. Topspin calls its new solution Boot over InfiniBand. It consists of three key parts: a new remote-boot version of Topspin's host channel adapter (HCA), a server switch, and Ethernet or Fibre Channel gateways for connecting to application images on a NAS or SAN.

Topspin says this setup lets diskless servers run in a "stateless" fashion, automatically allocating resources and allowing customers to provision any combination of application, operating system, storage, and I/O to a server in the time it takes to reboot. Traditional servers already have this so-called boot-over capability, but Topspin is the first InfiniBand vendor to offer it.Topspin marketing VP Stu Aaron says the boot-over capability is the first step toward allowing the company's server partners to use InfiniBand for their utility or grid computing platforms. Those partners include IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM), Sun Microsystems Inc. (Nasdaq: SUNW), Dell Computer Corp. (Nasdaq: DELL), and Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HPQ), all of which have announced plans to use Topspin gear in their servers (see Dell Joins InfiniBand).

This is the first piece that expands InfiniBand beyond the clustering interconnect space into the world of grid computing," Aaron says. "This allows our system vendor partners to deliver solutions that compete with Egenera. Companies like Egenera have sparked interest in this technology, but customers want to buy from people they trust.”

Ouch. Predictably, Egenera marketing VP Susan Davis doesn't share Aaron's view. “This [boot-over] technology is nothing new to the market, it’s just new to InfiniBand,” Davis says. “We’ve had the ability to boot over SANs for years. The value is about the virtualization services you build above it." She says much more is needed, including software to perform services such as high availability, clustering, disaster recovery, chargeback, and automatic repurposing.

Egenera makes a blade server with its own virtualization software and optional virtualization OEM'd from VMware, now part of EMC Corp. (NYSE: EMC). (See Egenera CEO Sticks Up for Startups.)

To put Topspin's technology to best use, OEMs will have to add the necessary software to create a full-scale Egenera-beater. That said, IBM cited virtualization as one of the major selling points when it announced the deal to use Topspin’s InfiniBand switches in January (see IBM Strikes InfiniBand Deal). IBM has been one of the major drivers of InfiniBand and grid computing, so perhaps it's understandable that Topspin is crowing about being first to be able to boot over InfiniBand.At least one analyst agrees that a boot-over capability for Infiniband doesn't equate to full-scale server virtualization. “I think it is a giant step forward, but it still requires virtualization software,” says Arun Taneja of The Taneja Group. “They couldn’t do virtualization without disk booting -- it’s a prerequisite, but it’s not the whole solution.”

Voltaire CEO Ronnie Kenneth agrees the ability to boot-over InfiniBand is necessary, to take the technology behind high-performance computing, but says it is “not a new or exotic technology. We are involved in this technology as well. It doesn’t create any disadvantage for us.”

Kenneth refuses to say when Voltaire will have boot-over InfiniBand capability but concedes it is “something that is needed by InfiniBand.”

Aaron says Topspin's Boot over InfiniBand solution will be available by the end of the month.

— Dave Raffo, Senior Editor, Byte and Switch0

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