InfiniBand Natives Stirring

Can the technology rise above its niche play and displace Fibre Channel?

November 16, 2005

3 Min Read
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Too often dismissed as the poor stepchild to Fibre Channel, InfiniBand nonetheless came out of the shadows this week at the Supercomputing 2005 conference in Seattle.

The catalyst? The advent of native InfiniBand storage systems, which let customers connect directly through InfiniBand switches and eliminate the need for Fibre Channel-to-InfiniBand bridges.

First, LSI Logics Engenio division Monday said it was delivering a native InfiniBand storage system to OEM partners Silicon Graphics and Verari Systems. (See Engenio Goes Native , SGI Connects Servers, Storage and Verari Ships InfiniBand SAN.) DataDirect Networks has also been shipping its own native InfiniBand system for months but waited until last week to officially launch it.

How big a deal is native InfiniBand? It allows SAN controllers to connect to servers through InfiiniBand without having to use a Fibre Channel-to-InfiniBand bridge. This bumps up performance because InfiniBand transmits data faster than Fibre Channel.

The InfiniBand community hopes native systems give a boost to a technology making a bit of a comeback after being ridiculed as overhyped a few years back. (See Whither InfiniBand?.)But nobody’s expecting mass migration from Fibre Channel to InfiniBand in the data center just yet. The early target customers for native InfiniBand SANs are high-performance computing clusters already running InfiniBand with a port or two to spare, rather than users looking to abandon their Fibre Channel SANs.

“Several of our customers who have deployed InfiniBand have said ‘The InfiniBand switch is already there, why can’t I plug in my storage?’ ” Verari CEO David Driggers says.

With that in mind, Engenio reworked its 4-Gbit/s Fibre Channel controller, replacing eight 4-Gbit/s host connections with four InfiniBand connections. (See Tom Georgens, CEO, Engenio.) Silicon Graphics will sell Engenio’s controller in its InfiniteStorage TP9700 array, and Verari will ship Engenio’s system as the VS7000i.

Engenio product marketing VP Steve Gardner says Engenio went native with InfiniBand to take advantage of momentum driven largely by Cisco’s acquisition of InfiniBand switch startup Topspin for $250 million in April. (See Cisco Takes On Topspin and Cisco Topspins Into Virtualization.) That came just after Isilon began offering InfiniBand as an alternative to Ethernet as the back-end connectivity on its NAS systems. (See Isilon Embraces InfiniBand.) Isilon claims 90 percent of its customers have since chosen InfiniBand. Isilon is now considering offering InfiniBand as a front-end connection to the host next year, CTO Sujal Patel says.

InfiniBand is also becoming more popular for running clusters on Linux. That’s how DataDirect customer North West Geomatics uses it.“It’s kind of a neat technology,” says John Welter, VP of operations for North West Geomatics Ltd., a Calgary, Alberta-based aerial mapping company. “It’s definitely where high-performance computing is going. Now the debate is whether to go to InfiniBand or 10-Gig Ethernet.”

Engenio OEM partners IBM and Sun have yet to be heard from on the native InfiniBand system, although both offer InfiniBand connectivity to HPC Linux cluster servers and blade servers. They did not respond to queries by press time.

There will be likely at least one more native InfiniBand system in the coming months, regardless of the major vendors’ stance. German startup Xiranet is planning native InfiniBand systems using commodity hardware in early 2006.

— Dave Raffo, Senior Editor, Byte and Switch

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