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Microsoft backs away from InfiniBand

The software maker--an early InfiniBand backer--reverses a plan to build support for the high-speed networking technology into its next server version of Windows.

Microsoft, one of the early InfiniBand backers, has reversed a plan to build support for the high-speed networking technology into its next server version of Windows.

Microsoft believes that most customers will prefer to extend existing Ethernet networking and therefore has dropped InfiniBand software that had been planned for its next server operating system, Windows .Net Server, due at the end of the year.

"Microsoft has decided to discontinue developing native InfiniBand support," the software maker said in a statement, adding that it will continue to help other companies offer InfiniBand products that plug into Windows.

The move, first reported by trade publication ByteandSwitch, is the latest blow to the widespread adoption of InfiniBand, just a few weeks after Intel withdrew its support and a week after a top Hewlett-Packard server executive declared that most customers "are not going to invest in a whole new infrastructure around InfiniBand."

InfiniBand once was expected to become a universal feature of servers, but has been relegated to a smaller high-end market. The diminished importance illustrates how initiatives--even when backed by powerhouses such as IBM, Sun Microsystems, Dell Computer, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Compaq and Intel--aren't guaranteed of success.

But InfiniBand advocates remain adamant that the technology--the first to reach transfer speeds of 10 gigabits per second--will let computers packed into data centers run at full throttle. InfiniBand stresses server processors less than Ethernet, said Allyson Klein, Intel's industry marketing manager for InfiniBand architecture and a representative of the InfiniBand Trade Association.

"There are some reasons for data center managers to consider moving to InfiniBand in the short term. We are seeing increasing performance improvements and the ability to scale out data center resources effortlessly--things you can't do today with today's data center infrastructure," Klein said.

Microsoft, though still a member of the InfiniBand Trade Association's steering committee, is more guarded.

Given curtailed spending on computer equipment these days, customers "are gravitating toward evolutionary technologies," Microsoft said. "Gigabit Ethernet technologies, while not as (high-performance) today as InfiniBand, are now able to address the demands of a higher range of server capabilities with no additional software or management expense."

Microsoft's strength lies in lower-end servers where InfiniBand support is no longer taken for granted.

"There was a time back in the earlier days of InfiniBand when people perceived it was going to run from the largest server to the lowest desktop. Clearly, as the technology has evolved and people's understanding of the market has evolved, it has migrated toward higher-end solutions," said Insight64 analyst Nathan Brookwood.

Evolution over revolution
And modified versions of today's technologies often prevail.

"The computer industry is so large that evolutionary approaches almost always have an advantage over revolutionary approaches," Brookwood said. "The guy that comes into the market with a revolutionary approach that's way better than the evolutionary approach often is foiled by the inertia of the existing approaches and the ability of the existing approaches to adopt the good attributes of the revolutionary approach."

For example, Brookwood said, some Ethernet backers are now working on building their own version of an InfiniBand feature, the ability for one computer to directly address another's memory.

One company that has a large stake in InfiniBand is Mellanox, a Santa Clara, Calif.-based start-up that's building InfiniBand chips. Kevin Deierling, Mellanox's vice president of product marketing, believes InfiniBand will thrive even if other companies have to write the essential "driver" software to let Microsoft Windows talk to InfiniBand devices.

"This really doesn't impact what we saw as the time to market for InfiniBand technology," Deierling said of Microsoft's decision.

InfiniBand companies have been working on drivers for Windows 2000, and now those drivers will merely be extended further into the future, he said. "The platform support is all there."

Deierling even managed to find a silver lining in Microsoft's decision: "This may accelerate the market because people were holding off, saying maybe it's better to wait for .Net (Microsoft's overarching software plan) to deploy InfiniBand," he said.

InfiniBand has some parallels to Fibre Channel, another high-speed connection technology that requires customers to build a network separate from the ordinary TCP/IP-Ethernet network. Fibre Channel is well suited to high-end data storage systems, but faces a challenging standard that builds on TCP/IP called iSCSI.

Fibre Channel hasn't become mainstream, but it has showed that the industry can build new technologies without built-in Microsoft software support.

Fibre Channel support in Windows came in part through JNI, which makes InfiniBand adapters that can be plugged into servers and which now is writing Windows InfiniBand software. Chris Wildermuth, JNI's director of strategic marketing and another representative of the InfiniBand Trade Association, said InfiniBand will pay off.

"The data center manager will be more than happy to add this on," Wildermuth said, "For JNI...a market that has the possibility of being at a billion dollars by 2006 is not a niche."