Startup Claims InfiniBand Alternative

Judy Estrin's Precision I/O uses Ethernet to speed up server-to-network links

March 26, 2004

4 Min Read
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A startup founded by longtime networking entrepreneurs Judy Estrin and Bill Carrico claims to have a solution to the problem of server I/O that's easier and cheaper to implement than InfiniBand, TOEs (TCP offload engines), or proprietary solutions.

Precision I/O is working on software to improve performance of the Ethernet link between server and network -- without requiring hardware upgrades or special devices and protocols, extra baggage Estrin says goes with InfiniBand.

"You'll see InfiniBand in niche applications, but you need a substantial infrastructure upgrade to make InfiniBand work, and customers won't do it," Estrin says. "We are 100 percent Ethernet... non-disruptive and require no new protocols or fabric." Using software that sits alongside the server operating system without penetrating the kernel, Estrin claims Precision I/O's solution improves transaction throughput two to seven times, and latency by three times.

So far, these are just claims. Nothing's shipping yet, and probably won't until at least mid-2004, though Estrin and partners plan to formally unveil Precision I/O and its strategy next week.

Still, the thought of an alternative solution to the server I/O bottleneck in today's networks is compelling. "Right now, servers are notoriously bad at I/O, which means that whilethey can process data at amazing speeds within the server, it's hard toget the data into them and out of them," writes Mark Hoover, president and co-founder of Acuitive Inc., a firm that specializes in helping technology startups -- but not, he says, Precision I/O. He says industry frustration with getting better network performance from high-end servers has built to a head: "Why is it that CPUs that can process the worlds biggest and most complex spreadsheets in microseconds can only serve Web content at 10 or 20 Mbit/s, even if they have a 1-GigE NIC?"InfiniBand is the most prevalent and, so far, comprehensive effort to solve the I/O problem, though other methods have emerged, including proprietary InfiniBand lookalikes, as well as the use of TOEs and, more recently, attempts to adapt the kinds of links between CPUs inside servers for use in networks (an emerging effort underway to define Remote Direct Memory Access, or RDMA, over IP).

At least one analyst questions whether Precision I/O can live up to its claims. "I'm going to stay skeptical until someone can give me more data," says Arun Taneja of the Taneja Group consultancy, who hasn't seen the startup's solution yet. While RDMA over IP presents the closest to a nondisruptive solution to the I/O problem to come down the pike, it's still at least a year away from availability, he says. Meanwhile, InfiniBand is the most accessible solution and has been winning support by default from established players and startups alike (see Dell Joins InfiniBand, Voltaire Picks Up $15M, and Fiberxon Launches 120km Tranceivers).

Then again, if a new technique came along that offered a standard approach and comparable performance improvements, it could be an InfiniBand "killer," Taneja concedes.

It seems that's just what Estrin is after. And while the proof remains in the as-yet-unseen pudding, she and Carrico have developed considerable credibility over the years. After founding Bridge Communications, an internetworking company, in 1981, taking it public in 1985, and selling it to 3Com Corp. (Nasdaq: COMS) in 1987, the couple founded Network Computing Devices, a Unix software company, and took that public in 1992. Next came Precept Software, which made streaming video software. Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) bought Precept in 1998, and Estrin took on the CTO spot there until 2000.

Precision I/O is one of three companies to grow from Estrin and Carrico's latest company, Packet Design LLC, launched in 2000 with a mission, as stated on its Website, to "develop technologies that enhance the performance, scalability and manageability of the Internet infrastructure for telecom carriers and enterprises" (see Packet Design Reshuffled and Packet Design Raises $14.25M). The other two are Vernier Networks Inc., developing wireless networking software, and Packet Design Inc., an IP routing/control plane software startup.Precision I/O was seeded with funding from parent Packet Design LLC, but it just got another $10 million in its first outside round, from Advanced Technology Ventures, 3i , and Foundation Capital.

Estrin, who's acting CEO and chairman of Precision I/O, shares management with CTO Bob Felderman, co-founder and former director of software development at Myricom Inc., which makes the MyriNet clustering technology for high-speed computing; chief scientist Van Jacobson, formerly of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; VP of marketing and business development Laurie Yoler, formerly with Sun Microsystems Inc. (Nasdaq: SUNW); VP of engineering Ross Werner, formerly with Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI) (NYSE: SGI) and Terawave Communications Inc.; and CFO Jack Bradley, formerly of Cisco and a longtime colleague of Estrin and Carrico's on their other startups.

Figure 1: Judy Estrin, Acting CEO, Precision I/O

Mary Jander, Site Editor, Byte and Switch

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