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Ethernet, InfiniBand Side by Side

The idea that Ethernet and InfiniBand protocols might be put side by side in a data center seemed like a strange notion at one point.

With vendors championing one or the other, it seemed never the two would meet.

But then Cisco Systems bought InfiniBand fabric specialist Topspin and the networking giant has intent on making the two interconnect technologies work together.

Today, Cisco realizes that concept with unified compute fabric, an approach that integrates network management and troubleshooting, application protocols and APIs for Ethernet and InfiniBand.

The benefit of this is that administrators can run and manage IT clusters through one management console, said Krish Ramakrishnan, vice president and general manager of Cisco's server switching and virtualization unit.

This could yield big cost and time savings, Ramakrishnan explained. Until unified computing fabric, customers had to buy Ethernet and InfiniBand networks separately and manage them separately and differently.

"With this announcement, customers are able to deploy one network as it was one giant cluster and manage them as an integrated computing environment without having to differentiate whether the data is going over the InfiniBand or the Ethernet," said Ramakrishnan, who was Topspin's CEO before the buy.

This integration makes it suitable for deployment in a data center for high-performance computing applications, the executive said.

The move should help InfiniBand, used in scientific scenarios for its high speed and low latency of data throughput, become more mainstream, powering commercial applications from Oracle and SAP.

"Ethernet will be suitable for many applications," Ramakrishnan said. "A lot of applications don't need low latency, but for large scale-out capability, such as in huge grids, InfiniBand is the best choice for acceptable price performance."

While science-oriented vendors, such as those who do fluid dynamics, have used InfiniBand as a staple, Ramakrishnan said Cisco's approach of using both protocols could be popular on Wall Street or in any server farms where thousands of servers need Ethernet.

"On Wall Street, where market data feeds financial applications, you don't want them going down," Ramakrishnan said. "You need to be able to troubleshoot and isolate the problem."

Unified compute fabric meets those needs, he said.

InfiniBand is also a core staple of Cisco's service-oriented network architecture (SONA) for developing distributed computing infrastructure for the network.

As part of the news, Cisco also unveiled new switches from the Topspin technology. The Cisco SFS 7000D Double Data Rate switches, which also work with single-data rate technology, deliver low latency.

The SFS 7000D boasts 24 ports; the SFS 7012D has 144 ports; and the SFS 7024D is the most powerful switch to date, handling 288 ports.

Ramakrishnan said the double-data rate technology takes InfiniBand from its traditional 10 gigabits per second to 20 Gbps per port on x86 AMD Opteron PCI-Express systems.

With the networking market heading toward convergence of voice, video, data and mobile applications, Cisco is competing with Nortel , Alcatel and Juniper Networks to help business customers quickly and efficiently move data.

The San Jose, Calif., company hopes its SONA approach will choreograph network computing for years to come.