Should InfiniBand Be on Your Beta Agenda?

The InfiniBand Trade Association has packaged its message and taken it on the road. Last month, in New York, Washington, DC, and Boston, proponents of the new interconnect technology briefed IT managers about its benefits and made the case that data centers should prepare to add the technology to their beta-testing programs next year.

The InfiniBand technology provides a high-bandwidth, low-latency common standard for communications, storage, and networking I/O, replacing three connections with one. (The term InfiniBand comes from the phrase "infinite bandwidth.") With an approach called switched fabric, products that use the InfiniBand technology connect servers and peripheral devices throughout an organization, whether those devices are based on Ethernet, Fibre Channel, Ultra SCSI, or proprietary interconnect technologies. Currently, each connection technology requires its own fabric. Moreover, offloading I/O communications tasks to the fabric frees up CPU cycles for transaction processing and other compute-intensive tasks.

Since the first version of the specification appeared in October 2000, nearly 200 companies—including industry heavyweights such as Dell, Hewlett-Packard (HP), Intel, Microsoft, and Sun Microsystems—have joined the InfiniBand Trade Association. About 70 companies have announced plans for products based on InfiniBand technology. According to Byron Longmire, director of product marketing for Mellanox Technologies, which provides chips based on the InfiniBand technology, many commercial products are currently in beta testing and should come to market by 2003.

Market analysts are bullish about the long-term prospects for the InfiniBand technology</A>. According to the market-research organization IDC, the technology should reach critical mass in 2004, when 15 to 25 percent of all servers shipped will include this new technology. IDC anticipates that by 2006, 30 to 50 percent of servers shipped will incorporate the InfiniBand technology.

Despite this promise, InfiniBand still must overcome some formidable obstacles. In addition to the commercial products that will emerge next year, underlying network technology has to improve as well. According to Longmire, 10GB Ethernet is the InfiniBand "sweet spot." However, many enterprises don't have data flows that justify investing in 10GB Ethernet, noted Sharavan Pargal, manager of advanced technology and planning at QLogic and a participant in the InfiniBand Trade Association's conferences. He believes that companies that deploy 10GB Ethernet technology today will have trouble generating the "volume to fill the pipe."

Despite these concerns, InfiniBand proponents believe that now is the time for IT managers—particularly storage administrators—to start planning beta tests by using InfiniBand technology as it becomes available. Storage, through both Storage Area Networks (SANs) and Network Attached Storage (NAS), will be one of InfiniBand's first applications. In a recent report, the market-research organization Aberdeen Group argued that InfiniBand's fabric topology is the preferred architecture for storage networking. According to Aberdeen analysts, storage networking currently uses three specific protocols, and administrators can use the InfiniBand switched fabric to aggregate the topologies into a unified network with an unlimited number of I/O channels.

Aberdeen analysts don't believe that storage will be the first major InfiniBand application. Instead, they believe that companies will first use InfiniBand for clustering servers—probably in database applications. In early tests, IBM reported that that its DB2 database had near linear scaling to 999 nodes using InfiniBand technology when partitioning SAP's enterprise resource planning (ERP) application. In another case, the performance of a DB2 cluster on Linux improved by 25 to 40 percent when testers used InfiniBand technology instead of Ethernet.

As a result of these reports, Aberdeen anticipates that data centers will deploy InfiniBand along the following time line. This year, IT managers will get acquainted with the technology. In 2003, InfiniBand data centers will deploy InfiniBand in some clustering applications. By 2004, InfiniBand will play a role in storage networks as well.

InfiniBand, QLogic's Pargal argued, is a revolutionary technology that promises to have a significant impact over the long run for two key reasons: improved performance and better management control. The time for IT managers to learn about the InfiniBand technology is clearly now.

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