Top server makers rally around InfiniBand

IBM, Sun and Dell give a shot in the arm to the high-speed networking technology, saying they see an important, if scaled-back, role for the technology in their servers.

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Three of the top four server sellers are rallying around InfiniBand, giving a shot in the arm to a high-speed networking technology that's suffered recent setbacks.

IBM, Sun Microsystems and Dell Computer took to the campaign trail this week, announcing that they see an important, if scaled-back, role for the technology in their servers. Hewlett-Packard, however, is pinning its InfiniBand adoption to widespread customer interest.

IBM in the first quarter of 2003 will begin installing InfiniBand-connected groups of computers for housing databases and performing high-speed calculations. Dell agrees with that approach, while Sun is building InfiniBand into its entire product line.

"We believe we're at the point in time where the technology is maturing," said Subodh Bapat, chief technology officer for Sun's lower-end servers. "We believe it will offer some compelling performance improvement for the next generation of data center applications."

InfiniBand, a technology that can transfer data at 10 gigabits per second with minimal delays, was once poised to sweep the industry with backing from IBM, HP, Compaq Computer, Dell, Sun, Intel and Microsoft. In recent months, though, Intel and Microsoft have distanced themselves.

Advocates no longer expect InfiniBand to replace the universally used PCI data pathway--its first mission--but rather to be used as a fabric to connect servers and storage systems that reside within data centers. One use will be to connect lower-end systems so they can share the onerous computing chore of storing databases of information. Another is joining low-end servers into a supercomputer.

Not all are so bullish. HP--one of the inventors of InfiniBand--was conspicuously absent from the joint announcement.

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"We're taking a wait-and-see approach. We don't believe that it's really lived up to the hype," the company said in a statement. "We're in the camp more with Microsoft and Intel right now. If we start hearing some noise (from customers), we'll start looking at it."

HP's rivals are sticking to their guns.

Sun will use InfiniBand as a means of linking its "blade" servers together within a single chassis, beginning with the second-generation products coming in 2004, Bapat said. At some point after that, Sun will use InfiniBand in its midrange and high-end servers as a way to join the systems together, he said.

In addition, Sun will use InfiniBand in its storage systems and will equip its Solaris operating system with InfiniBand interfaces so software companies can take advantage of it.

IBM will use InfiniBand in all four of its server lines--xSeries Intel-based servers, pSeries Unix servers, iSeries mid-range servers and top-end zSeries mainframes.

First will come the Intel server line, with uses in clustered databases and supercomputers, said Tom Bradicich, CTO of IBM's xSeries line. Then, in 2004 or early 2005, InfiniBand will be incorporated into the rest of the line.

Dell agrees with IBM's approach--clustered databases and supercomputers, said Jimmy Pike, director for server architecture and technology. Its blade servers are built to use InfiniBand if Dell so chooses, and the company has management software in place for its "InfiniBand-read" servers.

Many of the applications these three companies are contemplating for InfiniBand don't require major changes, however. InfiniBand support can be added by plugging a card into a server's PCI slot.

The server support for InfiniBand for the some time will rely on these add-in cards, Bradicich said.

The high-speed networking technology has had delays. Earlier in its life, advocates had hoped InfiniBand products would arrive in late 2001. Now, Mellanox, which specializes in chips for InfiniBand products, believes it will be broadly adopted in 2003.

"It has taken longer to get the whole solution in place than was thought a year ago, but it is coming together well," said Dana Krelle, newly appointed vice president of marketing at Mellanox.

InfiniBand's 10gbps speed is attained using four wires. This "4x" version will be joined by a 30gbps "12x" version in three years or so, Bapat said.

In addition, Bradicich said, faster versions of InfiniBand are on the drawing board.