Industry not jumping off InfiniBand-wagon

Don't write off InfiniBand just yet, experts say, as momentum behind the high-speed bus transport has merely slowed, not stalled.

Despite recent pullbacks by Hewlett-Packard Co., Intel Corp. and Microsoft Corp., those bullish on InfiniBand see promise in a lengthening lineup of advancements, including:

* Hitachi Data Systems Corp. and start-up Voltaire Inc. are planning to announce this week that Hitachi will integrate Voltaire's InfiniBand switching software into its servers and storage.

* IBM Corp. is expected to announce as early as next week that its 4x (10G bit/sec) InfiniBand silicon is generally available. A number of vendors, including start-ups Infinicon and Vieo, are readying to announce their support of IBM's InfiniBand silicon, which will be used in switches and routers.

* IBM, Legato Systems Inc. and Veritas Software Corp. intend to demonstrate their applications running on InfiniBand-enabled server clusters at next week's Intel Developer Forum.

* Intel and start-up Mellanox Technologies Inc. announced last week that they would release open source Linux drivers for the high-speed bus technology that will work with server and workstation adapters.

Moreover, a number of start-ups focusing on InfiniBand, such as DivergeNet Inc. and Topspin Communications Inc., are just emerging from stealth mode, and a few enterprise-size organizations, such as Wells Fargo Bank and the University of Washington, are evaluating the technology.

Their interest in the high-speed interconnect is to provide faster connections between servers, storage and network devices. InfiniBand has been hailed as the fix for server I/O processing bottlenecks because it operates at speeds ranging from 2.5G to 30G bit/sec, much faster than current bus technologies that support speeds up to 1G bit/sec.

Users say the announcement by Hitachi and Voltaire is most significant, because it signals that a large vendor finally is supporting InfiniBand in a concrete way, as opposed to just a handful of start-up companies developing the technology.

"It's the right move on Hitachi's part - it's good for them, it's also good for the industry, because finally a storage vendor is stepping up to the plate," says John Blackman, systems architect for Emerging Technologies & Consulting at Wells Fargo Bank in Minneapolis.

However, analysts say that more large systems vendors need to endorse the high-speed bus and do it soon.

"Large vendors like IBM, Dell (Computer Corp.) and Sun (Microsystems Inc.) have to come out and say they are really going to deploy InfiniBand in their products for the market to be real," says Jamie Gruener, a senior analyst with The Yankee Group. "The next three to six months will be really crucial. Either InfiniBand will not take off because no one provides products at the large-vendor level, or it will take off and force other vendors to the table."

Recently Hewlett-Packard, Intel and Microsoft softened on their plans to implement InfiniBand hardware and software, causing user and vendor concern that their actions would result in a stampede away from the nascent technology.

While analysts project that InfiniBand first will be deployed in blade servers and as a link between processors in servers and storage, users are just now starting to think about the technology.

"Over the last quarter of this year we will be evaluating the requirements we need to move forward, the equipment we want to bring in and where we want to start," Blackman says. "Going into next year we will do all our technical assessments, proofs of concepts and pilots, so that in 2004, we'll be ready for production, provided the industry is ready as well."

Blackman intends to use InfiniBand in his data center initially to cluster servers.

A rough development cycle

InfiniBand has had a rocky development cycle beginning in 1998, with few users implementing or even understanding the technology. Like other cutting-edge technologies, such as server blades and iSCSI, InfiniBand has suffered from economic conditions that are prompting users to make conservative decisions in favor of more established technologies.

"The timing couldn't be any worse," says Arun Taneja, an analyst for Enterprise Storage Group Inc. "InfiniBand has been caught in this no man's land in the sense that the economy has been really bad, and with 9/11 happening, the IT community has been totally gun-shy about looking at any new technologies."

InfiniBand vendors acknowledge that they have been surprised by how long their technology has taken to develop.

"We were a bit aggressive about how quickly InfiniBand would be adopted," says Bob Fabbio, CEO of Vieo, an InfiniBand management company.

Gruener of The Yankee Group forecasts that InfiniBand used with servers and storage will increase from US$32 million in 2002 to more than $1.53 billion in 2006.

Despite the initial sluggishness, there still appears to be significant vendor interest in the technology. Auspex, a network-attached storage vendor, has announced that it is using InfiniBand to tie together the processors in its NAS appliances; Network Appliance is rumored to be interested in the technology; and IBM has said that it would implement InfiniBand across its server lines.

Analysts also say the delay in InfiniBand deployment has hurt vendors that lack sufficient funding to carry them over the drought.

Banderacom Inc. is InfiniBand's latest victim. Just last month, the silicon adapter and switch company laid off two-thirds of its employees, CEO Les Crudele left the company, and sources say the company is looking to expand its product offerings into other areas.

Even Intel, Qlogic and Microsoft decided that InfiniBand didn't fit within their immediate goals. Intel abandoned development of its 1x (2.5G bit/sec) silicon. Qlogic announced last week that it would focus on iSCSI and Fibre Channel instead of InfiniBand; and Microsoft was writing an InfiniBand driver for Windows 2000 and .Net server but decided instead to focus on Gigabit Ethernet and let third-party vendors do the work.

Despite that, in the next month, observers expect system vendors such as HP, IBM and Sun to make announcements either about servers that will be InfiniBand-enabled, faster 4x silicon or statements of their dedication to the technology. IBM is expected to announce general availability of its 4x (10G bit/sec) silicon, code-named Torrent, as soon as next Monday.

In addition, a number of start-ups are expected to make their moves soon. DivergeNet is working on switches and host adapters to fit in host computers; InfiniFast is developing four- and eight-port switches; Topspin, a hardware and software start-up, is virtualizing InfiniBand, Gigabit Ethernet and Fibre Channel into the same pool for data center use. Like DivergeNet, SBS Technologies Inc. will make host adapters and switches; and CSS Labs is developing InfiniBand blades, switches, bridges and host adapters to go in servers.

In a related announcement, the InfiniBand Trade Association and Intel will launch the InfiniBand Evaluation program this week at the Intel Developer Forum to help customers evaluate and deploy InfiniBand products.

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