Cisco pushes for InfiniBand in the data center

Cisco has rolled out a way to manage InfiniBand and Ethernet networks under the same console, which it hopes will make InfiniBand more popular in the data center.

Since its acquisition of Topspin more than a year ago, Cisco Systems Inc. has wanted to push InfiniBand into the data center beyond customers doing high-performance computing. With its release of an application to manage InfiniBand and Ethernet side by side, it may be getting there.

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Cisco today announced a way for IT managers to deploy one interface that manages Ethernet and InfiniBand networks, which the company hopes will weaken the resistance that some data centers have against adopting InfiniBand. It calls the product the Unified Compute Fabric.

Normally, IT managers overseeing Ethernet and InfiniBand networks have to manage two different consoles that list software, devices and other configuration items. They spit out separate reports that IT managers have to analyze separately.

The new combined console changes that.

"The fact that you can manage Ethernet and InfiniBand in exactly the same fashion is innovative and extremely valuable," said William Hurley, senior analyst for Nashua, N.H.-based storage research firm Data Mobility Group. "I think it will open the door to customers really thinking about adopting this technology and putting it in place."

Mike Luter, chief technology officer for Cancer Therapy & Research Center in San Antonio, Texas, said the Cisco announcement means data center managers will start thinking about adopting InfiniBand because it's now easier to do. How quickly InfiniBand and the unified management console become mainstream will depend on each individual user, or potential user.

But it takes longer than immediately for data centers to change their networking infrastructures. There is a time and money investment that IT managers must justify to their bosses before they can get the green light.

"Maybe we can't use that product today, but it gives us the opportunity to start thinking about it," Luter said, and who added that Cancer Therapy & Research Center's data center doesn't use InfiniBand -- yet.

InfiniBand supports low latency serial I/O between servers and storage within a fabric. InfiniBand fabrics have the potential to perform better, and be more reliable and scalable than existing networking technologies, according to supporters.

One of InfiniBand's features is remote direct memory access, which allows multiple servers to access each others' memory directly without any CPU or cache overhead. This creates fewer bottlenecks and keeps network bandwidth high.

But for data centers currently running Ethernet and Fibre Channel, the question is: Why change or add InfiniBand?

"Cisco has done a very good job of bringing the technology forward, and certainly adding and simplifying the management of InfiniBand," Hurley said. "This is the Topspin technology, and it continues to evolve."

When InfiniBand was in its infancy, some advocates thought it would become a comprehensive interconnect that would replace all data center I/O including PCI, Fibre Channel (a popular storage interconnect) and Ethernet. Others felt InfiniBand would become a valuable networking tool in data centers that would work alongside other networking fabrics and devices.

That latter vision is one that InfiniBand could move toward with Cisco's recent announcement.

Ethernet and Fibre Channel dominate many data centers now, Hurley said. But with Cisco placing its hands on the back of InfiniBand and pushing hard, that could change. Credit its $250 million acquisition of Topspin in 2005 for Cisco's ability to boost the fairly new technology. Hurley said the announcements by Cisco are about "90% Topspin."

In addition to the management console, Cisco announced the release of its double data rate switches able to conduct 20 Gbps of throughput per port. The switches can come with 24, 144 or 288 ports, and leave technologies like 4 Gbps Fibre Channel switches bobbing in their wake. The switches are expected to cost $1,000-1,200 per port.

"We're boosting InfiniBand to be data center capable because our customers need an interconnect for high-performance computing," said Krish Ramakrishnan, Cisco vice president and general manager of server switching and virtualization. Ramakrishnan is also the former CEO at Topspin.

"I think it puts a lot of end users in a more comfortable position in terms of managing an increasing amount of server virtualization technology," Hurley added. "It opens the door for more dynamic computing, which is one of the themes of virtualization, all through the lens of Ethernet-oriented management."

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Mark Fontecchio, News Writer

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