InfiniBand relegated to niche applications

Dell, IBM, Sun re-commit

By Dave Simpson

The buzz around InfiniBand started in 1999, and hype followed quickly as virtually every major server vendor hopped aboard. But a variety of factors put the brakes on the InfiniBandwagon, including the economic slump (which led to cutbacks in vendors' R&D budgets as well as IT budgets) and retrenchment by a few early proponents, most notably Intel and Microsoft.

Until recently, most of the InfiniBand noise came from a passel of start-ups. A partial list includes DivergeNet, InfiniCon, InfiniSwitch, Lane 15 Software, Paceline Systems, Topspin Communications, and Voltaire. For a complete vendor listing and more information about the InfiniBand architecture, visit the InfiniBand Trade Association's Website at www.infinibandta.org.

More recently, however, three of the top four server vendors—Dell, IBM, and Sun—have at least partially re-committed to InfiniBand and have sketched out product delivery plans. For example, IBM plans to deliver within the next quarter InfiniBand-ready xSeries (Intel architecture) servers, 10Gbps ("4x") InfiniBand-to-PCI host channel adapters (HCAs), an InfiniBand switch, and related software. According to Tom Bradicich, CTO of IBM's eServer xSeries line and co-chair of the InfiniBand Trade Association, target applications will include database server clustering and high-performance computing (e.g., "supercomputers").

IBM plans to add InfiniBand to the rest of its server lineup—the pSeries (Unix/RISC), zSeries (mainframe), and midrange iSeries—but not until late 2004 or early 2005, according to Bradicich. For those platforms, IBM will use InfiniBand as an inter-processor communications (IPC) connection and for server-to-server clustering.

For storage administrators, it's important to note that none of the major vendors position InfiniBand as a replacement for storage networking protocols such as Fibre Channel or iSCSI, nor for the PCI or PCI-X bus. (Originally, InfiniBand zealots predicted that the technology would replace internal I/O buses such as PCI, storage network technologies such as Fibre Channel, and even Ethernet.)

Analysts agree. "I don't envision InfiniBand being used as a server-to-storage interconnect," says Saqib Jang, an analyst with Margalla Communications, a consulting firm in Atherton, CA (www.margallacomm.com). "The next item on storage vendors' plates is iSCSI support, which itself has been pushed out due to the economic situation." (Jang is the author of the report, "Beyond gigabit networking and next-generation network-system I/O standards: Comparative positioning of InfiniBand and RDMA over TCP.")

IBM's Bradicich says that the first wave of InfiniBand products will be focused primarily on database clustering applications (and will offer an alternative to expensive, proprietary clustering techniques) and that the next wave will be based on InfiniBand fabrics for shared I/O applications. (Start-up InfiniCon already offers an InfiniBand device for shared I/O configurations.)

Sun's initial InfiniBand shipments will come in its second-generation blade servers, which are due sometime in 2004, according to Bob Zak, a "distinguished engineer" at Sun. Sun also plans to sell InfiniBand HCAs and switches.

Zak says that the primary applications for InfiniBand will be as a cluster interconnect, as an I/O channel for platforms such as blade servers and enterprise servers, and as an interconnect for storage systems. Zak also envisions InfiniBand being embedded in storage virtualization and aggregation devices.

Dell is currently testing InfiniBand products and is expected to introduce the technology in its next-generation PowerEdge blade servers.

In public statements, Hewlett-Packard officials have said that HP is taking a "wait-and-see" stance on InfiniBand and that product delivery will depend on end-user demand.

Don't hold your breath. "Events over the last year have made it clear that InfiniBand has been relegated to being a niche technology for the high end of high-performance clustering applications and/or as an internal backplane interconnect for high-end blade server configurations," says Jang.

Jang adds that it's too early for IT managers to factor InfiniBand into their evaluation plans. "Unfortunately, due to Microsoft's and Intel's pulling back, I don't think that enterprise IT departments should seriously consider evaluating InfiniBand at this time."

To date, the only major server/storage vendor shipping products with InfiniBand is Network Appliance, which offers an InfiniBand HCA option for its FAS900 line of network-attached storage (NAS) servers. The HCAs were developed by JNI and are based on silicon from Mellanox Technologies.

This article was originally published on March 01, 2003