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InfiniBand finally ready to leap in commercial market

Despite this, experts still agree that the interconnect architecture is fairly high-end for many traditional IT shops.

InfiniBand has threatened to take the IT stage by force several times now, but finally seems poised for its big number. The technology is particularly relevant for commercial shops that are clustering large numbers of servers for high-transaction applications such as databases, according to analysts.

The push is on. Since mid-January, there have been several major adoption announcements. Sun Microsystems said the infrastructure for its utility-computing grids will be based on InfiniBand. Another recent convert is Linux, which will support an open version of InfiniBand in its next major kernel release.

And IBM, an early backer of the technology that then decided not to manufacture its own InfiniBand chips, said it will resell Topspin Communications Inc.'s InfiniBand switch as a high-speed interconnect. IBM will pitch the switch for database clustering applications, among other uses, in its higher-end servers and in its TotalStorage products.

IT-oriented startups, including Virtual Iron and InfiniCon have recently rolled out more products, too.

On the customer side, of the 300-plus InfiniBand implementations, roughly two-thirds are already in commercial IT environments, according to a spokesman for the InfiniBand Trade Association. The group points to success stories, including Prudential Financial, Burlington Coat Factory and British Telecom. For the most recent quarter ending December 31, 2004, TopSpin shipped some 15,000 InfiniBand switch ports, around half to commercial shops, said Ben Eiref, director of business development.

William Hurley, an analyst with Enterprise Strategy Group, said, "I don't expect InfiniBand to take over as the backplane network in the corporate world anytime soon." But he said the technology is sound, is now competitively priced and does not require a complete data center revamp to implement.

If, for instance, a customer is replacing some servers, it's relatively easy to use the existing Ethernet cabling on the front side and then use InfiniBand to connect the boxes on the back end.

For the corporate data center, InfiniBand's big selling point is the ability to plug servers and storage devices into one network device instead of having to use ports to support several different types of network interface cards, the case in most shops now. InfiniBand takes those I/O interconnects outside any given server and then connects everything plugged into the network and manages it as one virtual infrastructure. It's also extremely high-speed, so it reduces the latency of waiting for information or requests to be passed among multiple servers.

"You can begin to use an Ethernet-compatible protocol as the physical layer to interconnect low-cost servers and achieve better performance," Hurley explained. In other words, InfiniBand is a way to harness the performance of all those Wintel boxes and get them all pulling in one direction to split up the processing of one giant application or several smaller apps.

Like the mainframes of old, InfiniBand is a channel-based architecture that uses message passing to move data around. "More information is flowing because there are more channels," said Jean Bozman, an analyst at International Data Corp., "so one packet doesn't have to wait for another. There are multiple connections." Where PCI and PCI Express bus architectures are meant to be used within any given device, InfiniBand is an extensible, switchable networking protocol that delivers different types of services outside the box.

Still, Bozman and others believe that InfiniBand is going to be a tough sell into the majority of corporate IT shops. Sure, there are some applications that require ultra-high bandwidth and the other benefits that InfiniBand brings to the table. But for the majority of corporate work, Bozman said, Gigabit Ethernet -- the network protocol of choice for much of the corporate world -- will be sufficient. And, she points out, much of the commercial space will ultimately move to 10 Gigabit Ethernet -- a "more natural path" for that environment, she said.

InfiniBand vendors said their switches are priced lower than 10 Gigabit Ethernet wares. But InfiniBand is still pricier than straight Gigabit Ethernet. InfiniBand ports average $1,000 each, versus around $200 or $300 per port for a Gigabit Ethernet switch with management and other features. Once InfiniBand prices get down to the $500 mark, the technology will have an even stronger sales pitch to make in the corporate world, according to observers.

But for now, at least, InfiniBand seems to be making some strides outside the high-performance computing world in which it began. And after several "hype cycles," as Hurley said, InfiniBand "is finally beginning to show it's a real technology with real benefits."

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