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Server groups give flashy name to embattled technology

Two previously battling groups of computing companies have come up with a flashy new name for a nuts-and-bolts technology that will change the innards of server computers in coming years.

Two previously battling groups of computing companies have come up with a flashy new name for a nuts-and-bolts technology that will change the innards of server computers in coming years.

The technology, now called "InfiniBand," was formerly referred to by the working name of "System I/O." It governs how devices such as network cards plug into powerful computers and how processors within those systems will communicate with each other.

Two factions--which pitted IBM, HP, and Compaq Computer against Intel and others--had been promoting two separate ideas until they arrived at a compromise in August.

Resolving the standards battle was significant because the conflict was holding up the designs for next-generation servers and the equipment servers use. Likewise, customers were griping about how the conflict was clouding the waters for their technology purchasing plans.

The technology will find its way into a wide range of computers and be implemented differently for different market segments. Currently, three versions of InfiniBand are planned, one that can transfer data at the rate of 500 megabytes per second, one at 2 gigabytes per second, and one at 6 gigabytes per second. The IntelliBand system will include versions for copper wires and optical fiber connections, enabling devices as far as several kilometers apart to be connected.

In the days before the compromise, Intel, Dell Computer, and Sun Microsystems backed one standard called Next-Generation Input/Output; while IBM, Compaq, and HP had backed another called Future I/O. Future I/O was faster but more expensive to use and later to arrive.

The steering committee members in charge of InfiniBand are Intel, HP, Compaq, Sun, Microsoft, IBM, and Dell. Those seven will control the specification with a one-company, one-vote governance method for three years, said Balint Fleischer, director of architecture at Sun.

Eight new "sponsor" companies were also announced today, which indicates how broadly InfiniBand likely will be used. The sponsor members are 3Com, Adaptec, Nortel Networks, Cisco, Fujitsu, Siemens, Lucent, and NEC.

"The scope of the switched-fabric and channel I/O clearly goes into networking and telecommunications companies," said Tom Bradicich, InfiniBand cochairman and director of architecture and design at IBM.

Nortel is interested in the technology as a way to remove constraints on how fast computers can feed information into optical networks, Nortel's specialty, said John Brule, director of Nortel's optical Internet server strategy.

"Our intention is to take as much of the bottleneck out of the network as possible," he said. "One way is a tight coupling between where the data and processing exist [the computer] and...the network."

At a conference today in San Francisco, the companies are describing the plans for InfiniBand and issuing reports from working groups dealing with aspects of the new standard, said Tom MacDonald, the other InfiniBand cochairman and general manager of the fabric component division at Intel.

A comprehensive draft of InfiniBand is due by the end of the year; the final specification is due early in 2000, said Martin Whittaker, research and development manager at HP. Products using InfiniBand are scheduled to debut in 2001.

The merger has been very helpful for Adaptec, which will make network adapters and hard disk array controllers using InfiniBand, said Bob Selinger, chief technologist with Adaptec.

"It certainly simplifies our life now that there's a single standard to focus on," Selinger said. "The specification may be a little bit delayed vs. what it may have been under the two separate standards, but that's only a few months."

One of the areas that divided the two camps before was how to handle intellectual property such as patents--a big asset for computing companies such as IBM that have invested in lots of research. In the InfiniBand arrangement, all companies who join the standardization effort "promise to license to each other the necessary intellectual property," Fleischer said. "The trade association doesn't own any kind of intellectual property, nor does it license it."