Intel to build chips for InfiniBand

A technology for high-speed communication among servers, storage systems and networks takes an important step closer to reality.

Stephen Shankland
Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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4 min read
SAN JOSE, Calif.--InfiniBand, a technology for high-speed communication among servers, storage systems and networks, has taken an important step closer to reality.

Joining other chipmakers embracing the technology, Intel announced this week that it will build chips for InfiniBand, a standard that an alliance of industry giants is currently developing.

Although Intel's support of InfiniBand was not in doubt, the chipmaker announced plans that bring the technology closer to fruition. Intel will make all three types of chips needed for InfiniBand systems and will license parts of its own InfiniBand chip design to others, said Tom Macdonald, general manager of Intel's component division.

In addition, the company will incorporate InfiniBand technology into chipsets, the processors secondary in importance only to the CPU, meaning that InfiniBand will come standard in many Intel-based servers.

Other companies producing chips for InfiniBand include IBM, Agilent Technologies and Lucent Technologies. Intel has invested in two start-ups making InfiniBand chips--Banderacom and Mellanox--as well as in Crossroads, which is bringing InfiniBand to high-speed storage network hardware, Macdonald said at the Intel Developer Forum this week in San Jose.

The high-end technology still has a ways to go. Prototype chips are beginning to arrive, Macdonald said, but the InfiniBand specification itself isn't expected to be final until September or October.

InfiniBand is a critical technology for Intel as it tries to produce server designs that can catch up to proprietary designs from IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Compaq Computer and especially Sun Microsystems.

First, selling InfiniBand chips and licensing intellectual property will be a revenue source. Second, in the bigger picture, InfiniBand will help the adoption of Intel servers in data centers and other demanding environments where customers are willing to pay for performance and reliability.

InfiniBand won't just benefit Intel's bottom line, though. More than 180 companies have joined the InfiniBand Trade Association. The association's steering committee is run by Intel, IBM, Microsoft, Dell Computer, Sun, Compaq and HP.

The alliance has appointed Macdonald and IBM's Tom Bradicich as co-chairmen, a reflection of the fact that the InifiniBand effort was preceded by two competing technologies, one from Intel, Sun and Dell and the other from IBM, Compaq and HP. After months of haggling, the two camps joined forces a year ago.

In the dispute, IBM, Compaq and HP had advocated a higher-speed but more expensive new technology called Future Input/Output (FIO), while Intel and its allies pressed for a conceptually similar, less expensive but less powerful system called Next-Generation I/O (NGIO). While the battle raged, servers based on Intel chips couldn't advance at the pace of proprietary Unix servers.

The companies say the bad blood is behind them, but some of the philosophy lives on. Intel's InfiniBand chips will initially be aimed at low-end systems using the slower, cheaper and simper "1X" version of InfiniBand, which offers a connection speed of 2.5 gbps (gigabits per second). IBM chips will start with more expensive "4X" designs, four times the speed.

Lucent's chips target both the 1X and 4X standards, but the company said its models use two-thirds the power of competing chips. That's important for data centers packed with thousands of chips that must be kept cool.

HP spinoff Agilent, on its own and in partnership with a Fujitsu spinoff called RedSwitch, also is working on InfiniBand chips, the company said.

InfiniBand chips fall into three categories: the "host" chips to communicate with CPUs; the chips to communicate with "target" devices such as network and storage adapters; and the high-speed switches that will connect the host and target chips.

Intel is licensing its design for the communication layer of InfiniBand to other companies, meaning that others could add it to switches or other chips to make sure their InfiniBand designs are compatible with Intel systems.

Intel also will sell InfiniBand development systems so that hardware and software companies can develop InfiniBand systems, said Jim Pappas, director of initiative marketing for Intel's fabric components division. "This will be among the first, if not the first, platform available," he said.

InfiniBand is expected to dramatically alter the way servers are built, Macdonald said. Today, servers typically have CPU and memory modules connected by a PCI bus to network cards and storage systems.

With InfiniBand, these functions will be split into separate boxes, continuing a trend toward specialization that the Internet has been driving. One type of machine will house CPUs and memory. These machines will be connected via InfiniBand to other machines devoted to communicating with the network or to storage systems.

It's a strategy appropriated from mainframe designs; one of its chief advantages is that customers can buy more of the components that they need: CPUs for computationally intensive jobs, or input-output and storage modules for talking to databases.