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Voltaire sprints ahead in InfiniBand horse race

As InfiniBand switch makers try to one-up each other with new, denser switches, Voltaire unveils a new product three times denser than the industry standard.

The race for the densest InfiniBand switch is on, and Voltaire has maintained its lead by a head.

At the ClusterWorld Conference & Expo in San Jose on Monday, the company announced the ISR 9288, which offers 288 ports of 10-gigabit-per-second InfiniBand, a high-speed technology used to connect servers and other computing elements. The new switch trumps the previous industry leader, a Voltaire 96-port switch, with three times the number of ports.

Voltaire competitor Topspin Communications also unveiled its latest switch at ClusterWorld. It announced a 96-port product, the Topspin 270 server switch. The company also offers a 24-port 10gbps switch and an eight-port 30gbps switch.

Port density may not be the sexiest way to compare products, but it can be a critical differentiator in the InfiniBand market, because denser switches allow customers to build very large clusters with fewer switching components, simplifying clusters and reducing the total cost of ownership.

A key application for InfiniBand switching is providing connections for supercomputer clusters. These large clusters of advanced computers handle complex tasks such as studying the human genome or forecasting weather. As researchers push the limits of scalability by adding more computing elements to these clusters, denser switches such as Voltaire's 288-port product will be needed, said Arun Taneja, founder and consulting analyst for Taneja Group.

Experts note that these applications are more the exception than the rule. According to a recent IDC survey of the high-performance computing market, 82 percent of all high-performance clusters require 96 ports or less. For the next six to 12 months, the 96-port switches should serve the market well, especially for enterprise applications, Taneja said. Many large financial institutions and health care companies have been using InfiniBand to connect to clusters of storage servers or Internet-enabled application servers. While these clusters are growing rapidly, most can be served adequately by 96-port devices, he said.

Large server companies, including Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Sun Microsystems, have plans to resell InfiniBand products in order to build these networks.

"Offering a 96-port switch was an absolute necessity for Topspin," Taneja said. "Ninety-six ports is the sweet spot of the market. Voltaire has been there for awhile, and now, with its newest switch, it will have an edge over Topspin for customers needing to build very large clusters."

Taneja said Topspin will still win business in the enterprise market because of its reseller agreements with large server and computing companies, such as Sun, IBM and Dell.

Topspin and Voltaire's announcements could spell trouble for InfiniCon, the third contender in the InfiniBand market. Currently, the company offers a 24- and 32-port switches. The company confirmed that it's working on a larger box that will offer 144 ports, but it said the product will not be announced until the second half of the year.

Chuck Foley, an executive vice president at InfiniCon, emphasized that his company's smaller boxes could still be used to build larger clusters; it would just require the smaller switches to be stacked. In fact, the company announced on Monday that these smaller switches are being used by China's Tsinghua University in its 128-node cluster, which will be used to support research projects conducted in both basic and applied sciences.

"These other companies are really just fighting over bragging rights," Foley said. "Denser switches are important, but you can't neglect the modular switches that hang off these clusters."

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