Interview: InfiniCon reduces network costs, complexity

Charles Foley, CEO of InfiniCon Systems Inc., believes his company has the killer app for emerging InfiniBand technology with a system called "shared I/O." Set to arrive this year in InfiniCon's Isis shared I/O architecture, Foley says his killer app can save companies money while reducing networking complexities. In this interview, Foley gives Dan Neel a crash course on the value of shared I/O and the importance of InfiniBand.

Q: What do people need to know about InfiniBand and InfiniCon's approach to the technology?People are looking at InfiniBand as a powerful network, and conventional wisdom says this is a powerful new network that I would use for server clustering and for clustering databases. If I asked 20 people about InfiniBand, 16 people would say that. And in their minds it means "I have an Ethernet network, I've got a Fibre Channel network, now I have to go install an InfiniBand network." And most will do it only for those clustered database servers, so there's an incremental expense. That's conventional wisdom. What I think people need to understand is InfiniBand is actually an enabling technology to let you consolidate your networks. Look instead at putting in a shared I/O system, which happens to use InfiniBand. And oh, by the way, by doing that you cut your costs by 50 to 70 percent. That's huge savings, and you slash your complexity and management costs even further than that. So you can do everything you can do in today's world with Fibrenet -- Fibre Channel and Ethernet -- and you can also do the server-to-server clustering because that's part of a well-designed shared I/O system that has InfiniBand switching in it. I actually happen to think that there is a horizontal killer app for InfiniBand technology.

Q: What's that killer app?

The horizontal killer app is shared I/O systems or external I/O systems. The application of a technology that could fit any server -- I don't care if it's a Web server, a security server, a database server, an ERP [enterprise resource planning] server, you name it.

Q: When you talk to customers about bringing in a shared I/O system from InfiniCon, is there a common technology or network problem that they're having?Yeah, and it's funny because the average customer we get in to talk to is not looking to put in a shared I/O system, they're looking probably at InfiniBand because they're looking at server clustering for some subset of their servers. But when we review the shared I/O approach, they say "Wow, you address the bleeding-from-the-neck problem that I have." And here's what it is: If you walked into a Fortune 100 shop that has 1,000 servers, they're going to get rid of and replace 200 to 300 servers a year because they're old or off lease, obsolete -- all those kind of things. In addition to that, they have about 4 [percent] to 6 percent server unit growth. So a guy that has 1,000 servers on Jan. 1, next year is probably only going to have about 1,060 servers. So, the problem there is every time they put a single server in, that single server has to be installed, configured, and managed on at least three separate networks, which means six, to eight, to 10 I/O cards per server. Because you've got to have at least two Fibre Channel cards, at least two Ethernet cards, you've got to have at least two server-to-server connections and maybe a maintenance LAN connection, and the big servers actually have more than those -- what I've described is the minimum. You just can't have your whole business running on just one Fibre Channel connection, because if it goes bad you're down the tubes. So the point is that if you're putting in hundreds of servers per year, or even if you're not growing that fast, every time you put [in] a single server you have to crack open three separate networks. However, if I had the InfiniCon shared I/O system, the system would be already installed and configured to Fibre Channel and Ethernet networks. So as I add servers, I just plug them into the shared I/O system with only one connection to make.

Q: What about cost concerns for companies with fewer servers -- should they be looking at InfiniCon?Absolutely. Our method literally cost-justifies itself at eight servers. So the first question you'd have to ask yourself is, if it's cost-justified at eight, why would I not do it? There's really no reason not to because if you're going to grow your server farm, this becomes a slam-dunk. Let's say I need to put in a new CRM [customer relationship management] package because I'm growing, and I go to Dell and Dell says, "Well, it's going to take 16 servers to run that application between your database servers and your application servers." So you're going to put 16 servers in and it's going to cost about US$220,000 when you factor in everything it takes to get them up and running. However, if I were to do this with a shared I/O system, I could accomplish actually more bandwidth [and] get more productivity while doing the same thing for about $75,000.

Q: InfiniBand companies such as Lane 15 have been integrating system management technology into their InfiniBand products. Is InfiniCon compatible with that type of InfiniBand management?Yes, we [are]. We fully support that and we work with all the major subnet managers -- you know, these guys like Lane 15, Intel, or Microsoft, who also [have] a subnet manager.

Q: Will we see a subnet manager come from InfiniCon?That's not in our strategy. We think that the right thing for us to do is for us to partner with the subnet management companies like Lane 15, because [in the] long term, the subnet managers may well end up coming from the operating system. Microsoft has clearly stated that that is their direction. They have a subnet manager that they're packaging with their .Net operating system, and you know how Microsoft is -- if you take their operating system, I would strongly recommend you use their stuff.

Q: After InfiniCon's shared I/O system begins to ship later this year, what's next?I could look at it as three steps. The first step is to deliver the external shared I/O system and our Isis architecture by the end of Q3. Our next step will be the next generation of the product, which -- to be honest -- is very tactical for us. It's to provide more port capability in a smaller footprint and draw down the cost. Because we think in a very short time InfiniBand will really be catching on and people are going to be concerned about the same things they're concerned about with the mature Fibre Channel and Ethernet network: smaller footprints with the same performance and lower costs. And the third step is to layer on significant pieces of intelligence that continue to address bleeding-from-the-neck problems for the data servers.

Q: But there's no reason for customers to wait, right?No reason. The first generation of our product will have the ability to do load balancing across the ports so that if you have, let's say, 10 Fibre Channel ports supporting 20 servers, you can make sure those ports are equally shared so you don't have these two ports which are pushing the red line and the other eight which are sitting idle. So, again, our strategy is let's deliver the world's first shared I/O system as step one; step two, let's drive down the cost and increase the density; and step three, let's start taking advantage of our software architecture and the unique position that we have as an I/O system between the servers network devices to start allowing the customers to do some really fun things, like load balancing and security.

Q: Is there anything users can do to prepare themselves -- or anything they shouldn't be doing -- in preparation for shared I/O?What's important is that people plan their network accordingly. If a company knows that [it will] have the capability for this technology in Q3, carefully analyze what you [install] between now and Q3. Number two is, InfiniBand is a fundamental new technology that, everybody agrees, will be the fundamental building block of [next-generation] servers. What I would recommend is that CIOs, CTOs, information system administrators, etc., take somebody on their staff and charter them to go get intelligent on InfiniBand. Most importantly, [familiarize themselves] with the management aspects of it. If you believe that you're going to go to an external, shared I/O system in the next six months, you probably don't want to go pre-buy a glut of spare Fibre Channel ports.

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