InfiniBand in the Spotlight

InfiniBand's role in storage networks is under review at a developers' conference this week

June 19, 2001

3 Min Read
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ORLANDO, Fla. -- A debate over the role of InfiniBand in storage networks is likely to get an airing at the InfiniBand Trade Association developers' conference in Disney World this week.

At issue is whether the technology, which was designed as a replacement for the PCI (peripheral component interconnection) bus in servers, could turn out to have wider applications as an alternative to Fibre Channel in storage nets.

From a performance point of view, InfiniBand has the credentials to do this. The name stands for infinite bandwidth,” although "infinite" in this case means 2.5 Gbit/s. In other words, it’s in the same ball park as Fibre Channel (FC) and other technologies being promoted for storage networks, such as gigabit Ethernet and iSCSI (see A Taxonomy for Storage Networks ).

InfiniBand is also a switched fabric rather than a bus, which means that it’s appropriate for linking together multiple servers to form clusters. Not surprisingly, some folk want to take this a stage further, linking clusters of servers and storage devices -- in other words, storage nets.

The argument against this is that Fibre Channel is already doing the job perfectly well. “Replacing one niche networking technology with another is not a winning strategy,” says William Hurley, storage analyst at The Yankee Group. “InfiniBand makes sense as a bus replacement -- and is well overdue. However, it’s not the appropriate technology to usurp share from FC.”Gigabit Ethernet is a stronger candidate for replacing FC, because it’s already being widely deployed and it’s already proving to be low cost. InfiniBand could also be low cost because of its likely widespread adoption by the PC industry, but it’s tough to tell whether this will translate into low-cost storage networking equipment.

Against this background, it’s hardly surprising that vendors are hedging their bets on InfiniBand.

An example of this occurred yesterday, when QLogic Corp. (Nasdaq: QLGC) announced an InfiniBand blade for its existing FC products (see QLogic Demos Infiniband Module) -- catering to customers that wanted to connect servers with InfiniBand interfaces to FC infrastructure. The blade will ship by the end of the year, according to QLogic, which hasn’t released pricing details.

In explaining its new product, QLogic downplayed the fact that it also has an InfiniBand switch for customers wanting to use InfiniBand everywhere.

Qlogic inherited this switch as a development project when it acquired Ancor Communications for $1.7 billion in May 2000, and the company appears somewhat ambivalent about it. “We really wanted [Ancor] for the Fibre Channel side of the business, but they were also building InfiniBand,” says Rob Davis, QLogic’s VP of advanced technology and planning.QLogic's InfiniBand switch was scheduled for commercial availability this quarter. So far, no sales have been recorded, although the switch is in trials with IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM), according to Davis.

It's worth noting that InfiniBand has some heavyweight backers, which include not only IBM but also Sun Microsystems Inc. (Nasdaq: SUNW) and Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC). Around 50 startups, including software companies, switch makers, and chip firms, are also working on products and services in this field. Between $150 million and $300 million of venture capital money is estimated to be riding on InfiniBand startups.

Jo Maitland, Senior Editor, Byte and Switch

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