Ethernet piggybacks on InfiniBand chip

Mellanox supports both high-speed network technologies on new networking chip.

Mellanox, maker of chips to enable use of the InfiniBand high-speed network technology, said this week it's begun shipping customers samples of a chip that supports both InfiniBand and 10-gigabit-per-second Ethernet.

Eventually, the company will sell its chips both on their own and built into network adapter cards, said Dan Tuchler, senior director of product management.

InfiniBand hasn't caught on widely, despite the ambitions of its designers, but it is used to connect servers into high-performance compute clusters and to link machines that jointly house large databases. "Where severs in close proximity have to move a lot of data really quickly and with low latency (communication delays), that's a good fit for InfiniBand," Tuchler said.

But even InfiniBand fans assume Ethernet will continue its dominance--thus the dual support in Mellanox's new ConnectX IB products.

"InfiniBand is a niche and will stay as such," with 10-gigabit Ethernet boxing it in, said Linley Group analyst Jag Bolaria. But that doesn't mean it's not a business worth pursuing for some. "This niche can be a significant opportunity for Mellanox, which is by far the InfiniBand leader with limited competition," he said.

Mellanox often hears predictions that 10-gigabit Ethernet will replace InfiniBand, Tuchler said. "We're constantly fighting that perception problem," he said. But "fundamental differences" give InfiniBand an edge in areas such as network traffic congestion.

Ethernet deals with traffic congestion poorly; packets of data get lost and must be re-sent, dramatically degrading performance. With InfiniBand, new packets may be sent only when there's room on the network. "Under congestion, Ethernet is really bogged down," Tuchler said. "With InfiniBand, fundamentally it doesn't happen."

InfiniBand provides data transfer speeds today of 20 gigabits per second, and Mellanox's new ConnectX IB technology also provides extremely low communication delays of 1.2 microseconds, or millionths of a second. That's a major improvement over today's 2.3-microsecond latency, he said.

Blade servers, multicore processors and virtualization all are taking off in the server market, and Tuchler believes that reality will help InfiniBand's prospects as a way to keep data flowing fast.

"We're seeing those trends line up so well with what we can do to address the input-output bottleneck," he said.

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