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Intel Makes Exascale Bet on InfinBand-Based Supercomputing

Intel, which played a key role in the creation of the InfiniBand high-speed networking standard a decade ago, has come full circle and bought the IB assets of Qlogic, one of the two remaining companies still actively pushing the technology. While $125 million is chump change for a company that netted $3.4 billion in profits last quarter, Intel says the acquisition will enhance its networking portfolio and provide scalable high-performance computing (HPC) fabric technology, as well as support the company's vision of innovating on fabric architectures to achieve ExaFLOP/s performance by 2018. At a hundred times faster than today's fastest supercomputers, it's an aggressive move, seeking to accelerate performance to a quintillion computer operations per second.

The InfiniBand specification defines a low-latency, high-bandwidth input/output architecture used to interconnect servers, communications infrastructure equipment, storage and embedded systems. It is a true fabric architecture that leverages switched, point-to-point channels with data transfers today at up to 120 Gbits per second, both in chassis backplane applications as well as through external copper and optical fiber connections.

Last year the InfiniBand Trade Association reported the technology is seeing continued growth on the TOP500 list of supercomputing sites. InfiniBand connects the majority of the top 100 with 61%, the top 200 with 58% and the top 300 with 51%. The total number of InfiniBand-connected CPU cores on the TOP500 list has grown 65%, from 1.4 million in November 2009 to 2.3 million in November 2010.

IDC says the HPC market was worth $19 billion in 2010, up 10%, and expected to see 7% growth through 2015. While Ethernet remains the leader, the research company predicts InfiniBand will continue to take market share from proprietary interconnects.

Supercomputing is the key to the deal, says Intel. While the percentage of HPC CPU shipments will drop from 15% to 12% between 2010 and 2015, it still represents a sizable chunk of the total market. However, next year the top 100 supercomputing CPU (total addressable market) will reach 1 million units, double in 2015, and reach 8 million units by 2019.

Intel says InfiniBand was seen as the missing piece to developing a scalable fabric by 2018. The acquisition also rounds out the company's Ethernet portfolio, it says. HPC is one of the two key pillars of growth within Intel's data center business, along with cloud.

The other company remaining in the IB market is Mellanox Technologies), which, along with Qlogic, has been an Intel partner. Oracle uses InfiniBand technology in its database appliances and bought a 10.2% share of Mellanox in late 2010.

The Qlogic deal, which is is expected to close this quarter, involves the product lines of and certain assets related to its InfiniBand business. A significant number of the employees associated with this business are expected to join Intel's network and communications unit.

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