InfiniBand Gets Second Looks

Cisco's purchase of Topspin could grease the wheels of next-gen data center gear

April 15, 2005

3 Min Read
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PHOENIX -- Storage Networking World -- It seems InfiniBand is being re-evaluated by the storage market.

The proposed sale of Topspin Communications Inc. to Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) has thrown the interconnect technology into the spotlight after several years on the sidelines (see Cisco Takes On Topspin).

But Cisco's not the only vendor that's taken a fresh view of InfiniBand's possibilities. Topspin announced a deal earlier this month with Isilon Systems to use Topspin servers, based on ASICs from Mellanox Technologies Ltd., to link nodes in its clustered NAS gear (see Isilon Embraces InfiniBand).

Both Isilon and Mellanox say the sale of Topspin to Cisco not only won't affect their partnership with Topspin, it boosts their approach. "We view this acquisition as an important validation of a key element of the next-generation data center," says Sujal Patel, Isilon's CTO.

Another NAS vendor, Exanet Inc., plans to use InfiniBand in place of Ethernet in an upgrade of its gear. Clive Surfleet, chief strategy officer at Exanet, says the startup already has a patent on using InfiniBand with low-port-count switch ASICs to achieve faster links between clustered file system nodes. Exanet plans to add this, along with 64-bit processors, to its NAS gear by this fall.Surfleet sees InfiniBand as key to grid-based storage in the future. Blade servers with modules linked internally by InfiniBand will eventually be "the new 19-inch rack," he maintains. Storage devices could be modules inside the blade servers, or they could link externally to blade servers through InfiniBand.

It's not clear how many other NAS vendors have new eyes for InfiniBand. According to Thad Omura, director of product marketing at Mellanox, Network Appliance Inc. (Nasdaq: NTAP) uses his company's InfiniBand switch ASICs inside the backend of storage systems for failover and mirroring. Will NetApp expand its use of InfiniBand now that Cisco's endorsed it? A NetApp spokesman did not respond to queries at press time.

Some suppliers will wait for more user endorsement. "Our connectivity is Ethernet, but if a customer asked us for it and was willing to sign a big enough contract, we'd do InfiniBand," quipped a staffer accosted in BlueArc Corp.'s booth at the tradeshow here today.

While InfiniBand could enjoy new status in data center and storage gear, it won't rise to levels hyped early on. In an interview with Byte and Switch today, Jeff Nick, CTO of EMC, made his reservations clear. "InfiniBand did not deliver in terms of adoption on its initial promise, but it had a bounce and is coming back," he says. "It's a useful technology with a place in the landscape."

Nick says InfiniBand, equipped with low-latency Remote Direct Memory Access (RDMA) capability, will take its place connecting servers in blade centers.Not a prediction of data center domination. But clearly, InfiniBand seems set for a solid future, particularly as switches, NAS gear, and other equipment shrinks into blade form.

Back to Topspin: Since its product has been endorsed by a range of blade server vendors such as Dell Inc. (Nasdaq: DELL), Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HPQ), IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM), NEC Corp. (Nasdaq: NIPNY; Tokyo: 6701), and Sun Microsystems Inc. (Nasdaq: SUNW), it will be interesting to see if Cisco's endorsement speeds up R&D.

Mary Jander, Site Editor, Byte and Switch

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