Interop: Mixed Messages on InfiniBand

Some admire, some don't. At Interop, InfiniBand's reception appeared as mixed as ever

May 5, 2006

4 Min Read
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LAS VEGAS -- InfiniBand continues to have fans and foes in seemingly equal -- if small -- measure. If this week's Interop tradeshow is any indication of market feeling, deployments are still largely in the high-performance computing (HPC) environment, proponents are still hopeful of wider adoption, and big storage vendors are still resistant.

Cheerleaders spoke up this week: "InfiniBand will have a rebirth," predicts Howard Goldstein, president of consulting firm HGAI, who led the conference's storage networking day. "Look at Cisco's acquisition of Topspin, look at QLogic's acquisition of Pathscale." (See QLogic to Buy PathScale and Cisco Completes Topspin Buy.)

"I agree with the perception that it will make a comeback," said a product manager from a semiconductor firm, who asked not to be named. "If you look beyond Fibre Channel and Ethernet, its something else that people have to look at. Initially, it was perceived as an IBM-only thing, and that kind of hurt it."

"We would look at it for storage because of its low latency," says a network engineer from an East Coast state government, who also cloaked himself in anonymity. InfinBand, he added, is also in the frame as a potential interconnect for his state's fast-growing server farm. "Our server area has outgrown our mainframe floor-space," he says.

Other users cite the server and grid computing benefits of the technology. "I think it's a great idea," opines Roy Rabey, IT Manager at Dallas-based gaming firm Ensemble Studios. In particular, Rabey feels the technology is a good fit for his data-intensive server work. "We do a lot of rendering, so having interconnected [processor] memories would improve our ability to render the data-intensive objects we use in game development."Ensemble Studios, which is best known for the Age of Empires games, typically takes up to three years to develop a new product, although Rabey feels that this could be reduced significantly if he used InfiniBand. "Not having to deal with the LAN would improve our rendering operation several-fold," he says.

The exec notes that, up until now, cost has been the main reason his firm has not deployed the technology, although he says there are also some interoperability issues. "The systems that we use have not implemented InfiniBand yet," he says, specifically the high-end graphics workstations that Ensemble uses to produce its games.

The ability to harness back-end horsepower was also cited as a key plus at Interop. "InfiniBand might have a play as the connection in grid computing, where you're using raw processing power," says Shlomi Harif, director of network systems and support for the Austin Independent School District.

But not everyone was so bullish on the technology's prospects. "I haven't really been exposed to it that much -- it's not a mainstream player," explains an engineer from the scientific research sector, who did not want to be named. "Are you going to bet your job on it?"

Recently, a number of vendors, including Engenio and DataDirect Networks, have started offering native InfiniBand storage systems, which let customers connect directly through InfiniBand switches, eliminating the need for Fibre Channel-to-InfiniBand bridges. (See InfiniBand Natives Stirring, Engenio Goes Native , and Verari Ships InfiniBand SAN.)Nonetheless, some big storage vendors remain uncommitted to using the technology in storage. "I do a lot of customer visits, but I must talk about it once a month, and that's only because someone has read about it," Marty Lans, EMC's senior director of product marketing, told Byte and Switch.

Brocade CTO Dan Crain, speaking on a panel this morning, highlighted the "uniqueness" of InfiniBand's bulky copper cabling as one of the main reasons hampering its adoption, along with end-user wariness. "Some of the main barriers to a new technology have always been political," he said. "No one wants to take responsibility for it."

Ed Chapman, vice president of Cisco's data center business unit, speaking on the same panel, explained that the vendor has a number of HPC and financial sector customers using the technology as a server interconnect. But, also citing cabling as an issue, he feels that the technology is yet to break out of this niche.

"It's not plug and play," he explains. "Unless there's a specific reason why you need to deploy these HPC applications, it's hard to justify saying, 'I want to deploy [InfiniBand] around my entire data center.' "

— James Rogers, Senior Editor, Byte and SwitchOrganizations mentioned in this article:

  • Brocade Communications Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: BRCD)

  • Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO)

  • DataDirect Networks Inc.

  • EMC Corp. (NYSE: EMC)

  • Engenio Information Technologies Inc.

  • IBM Corp.

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