Ethernet startup wants to be on every server

Startup Level 5 Networks believes it can solve the growing problem of inefficient Ethernet connectivity with its EtherFabric network card and software. Emerging from stealth mode Monday, executives at the 50-person company also talked up their ultimate ambition for EtherFabric to ship with every server sold worldwide, directly positioning their offering against current iWarp and InfiniBand interconnect technologies.

EtherFabric works with existing standards to improve network performance unlike iWarp and InfiniBand, which are incompatible with current network infrastructure and so can require users to replace hardware and software, according to Dan Karr, Level 5 chief executive officer. The EtherFabric network card and software are less of a drain on host server CPUs (central processor units) and allow servers to communicate with each other faster and at higher speeds. The company also claims that using EtherFabric will enable users to reduce the number of servers they deploy by a maximum of 50 percent.

"The reactions from people we've shown EtherFabric to is surprise," Karr said. "They're skeptical. But when they see what we can do, it's an easy sell. Over time, we hope to have our chips on the motherboard of every server manufactured." He expects EtherFabric to be used in supercomputers and enterprise data centers as well as servers.

Phil Williams, Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) advanced research fellow at the School of Pharmacy at the University of Nottingham in the U.K., has been beta testing EtherFabric. The EPSRC is the U.K. government's funding agency for research and training in engineering and the physical sciences.

Part of Williams' research involves studying proteins and how they fold using molecular dynamics software running across Beowulf-style clusters of computer nodes. He has been testing EtherFabric on a cluster of eight dual-processor Sun Microsystems servers running Novell's Suse Enterprise Linux and has experienced a performance increase of around eight times on some of his code. Williams has been comparing EtherFabric's performance to that of Myrinet from Myricom, and rated EtherFabric very favorable in ease of use, price and low network latency.

"Level 5 has been very supportive [of us] and EtherFabric's architecture and system has been flawless," he said. "I'm not a hardware expert, but I think this sort of technology should be adopted by manufacturers" replacing GigaEthernet with EtherFabric.

The university has recently installed a 512-node cluster of Sun Fire V20z servers known as Jupiter that Williams claims is the fastest machine in the U.K. and the third fastest in Europe. "We will be seriously looking at upgrading the machine [Jupiter] with EtherFabric in the future," he said. "We would expect to see an almost 10 percent improvement in performance by adopting EtherFabric." Jupiter is rated for 3.1 teraflops of performance, so if the university adopted and achieved the expected gains from EtherFabric, peak performance could rise to between 3.4 teraflops or 3.5 teraflops, Williams added.

"Level 5 has established an aggressive price/performance and has a very, very good technical presentation. They have an excellent product at 1 gigabit," said Frank Dzubeck, president of analyst firm Communications Network Architects. However, he points out that other players are already offering 10-gigabit Ethernet and also that "it's open warfare" in today's market with a whole variety of protocols and products in play.

While networking giant Cisco Systems has declared its intention to put the intelligence for networks into its switches, major server companies -- notably Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Sun Microsystems -- have yet to reveal their intentions. One or more of them could potentially partner with Level 5, but they might equally well have their own product plans or choose to hook up with another partner, Dzubeck said.

Dana Krelle, vice president, marketing at Level 5, sees the interconnect market as pretty flexible and predicts large IT vendors could move over to EtherFabric from existing technologies without much trouble. "In 1999 and 2000, everyone was backing InfiniBand," he said. "Then they decided it was hard to get customers to adopt it, so maybe they'd do it over Ethernet [with iWarp.] It shows they're not permanently wedded to any particular thing. "

EtherFabric is generally available now and Level 5's Karr said that his company can ship product anywhere in the world, with relationships already in place with shipping companies and a subcontractor in the California Bay Area that is producing the network cards. The company expects to rapidly build sales channels throughout Asia and Europe and the first vertical it will target is the life sciences market, he added.

The EtherFabric software runs on the Linux kernel 2.4 and 2.6, with support for Windows and Unix coming in the first half of next year. High volume pricing is US$295 for a two-port, 1G byte-per-port EtherFabric network interface card and software, while low volume quantities start from US$495.

EtherFabric was developed by "four chaps in a garden shed" in Cambridge, England, according to Karr. After having built the fastest LAN using proprietary technology in 2000 while at AT&T Laboratories, the four found themselves unemployed when the research facility shut down in 2002. They came up with the idea of making their work standards-based, running over Ethernet. They worked in the garden shed until receiving Series A funding to the tune of US$9 million in December 2003 from Accel Partners.

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