Infiniband Strikes Back With Help From Linux

Ethernet has emerged over the last decade as the dominant fabric for networking communication, but it’s not the only one. Infiniband, a technology that offers the promise of lower latency for high speed computing applications is making inroads according to analyst reports and the Infiniband Trade Association (IBTA).

Infiniband is the interconnect used on the world’s most powerful computer today, and has faster standard bandwidth connections than Ethernet, with even faster speeds to come. Yet, Infiniband in many respects is still fighting an uphill battle against Ethernet. It’s a situation the IBTA is aiming to change.

“Ethernet just can’t scale efficiently — this is really becoming important with Intel Nehalem, as some supercomputer sites were waiting on Nehalem,” IBTA spokesperson Brian Sparks told “Lots of people deploying Nehalem in HPC clusters are using 40 Gbps with Infiniband to connect and that speed has been available for almost a year now. ”

40 Gigabit Ethernet (40 GbE) is a standard that is currently under development, but has not yet been finalized.

Sparks added that Infiniband has already shipped over 5 million ports at 10 Gbps or higher with 40 Gbps adopted pretty well over the past year. Most ports currently shipping are actually 20 Gbps or 40 Gbps at this point and Sparks sees 10 Gbps Infiniband shipment on the decline from IBTA members.

Another thing that Sparks noted Infiniband is able to do now is I/O (input/output) unification for fabric consolidation which is a hot topic thanks to efforts from companies like Cisco on the Ethernet side.

“A lot of the items required for I/O unification are already enabled by Infiniband today,” Sparks said. “Obviously we’re facing the big gorilla of Ethernet — ‘anything that is not Ethernet is going to die’ has always been the perception — but now we’re really starting to see some really good cases for having two fabrics in the data center.”

On the speed issue, Sparks commented that Ethernet is still just ramping up on the 10 Gbps side of things.

“10GbE (Gigabit Ethernet) is a market that has been up and coming for 5 years now and it’s just still not there,” Sparks said.

Over two thirds of Ethernet port shipments are actually in the 100 Mbps range according to IDC. Ethernet Alliance president Brad Booth told that with new standards coming, the latency numbers on Ethernet are very comparable to those of Infiniband.

While Ethernet is now nearing standardization of 40 GbE, Infiniband itself is moving forward too.

“We’re at 40 Gbps today and we’re going to see 80 Gbps starting to deploy in the 2010 time frame, ” Sparks said.

He added that 80 Gbps Infiniband is a ratified standard at this point.

Infiniband in Linux

While Infiniband will work with multiple operating systems, Linux has a particularly close relationship.

“There are Infiniband drivers in all the operating systems, but Linux by far is the dominant OS especially for HPC,” Sparks said. “We’re completely in the kernel in different distributions. We’re always adding new enhancements for the Linux community and I think in terms of the development side we’re much closer with Linux than we are with Microsoft. ”

With greater speeds and latency, Infiniband still faces some significant challenges in the marketplace, according to William Lee, senior product manager at Infiniband vendor Mellanox.

“For the majority of data center networks, Ethernet is good enough, Lee said. “The perception from IT managers is that it comes for free, because it comes in the servers they buy. But we see a lot of traction in the areas where performance applications need higher bandwidth or lower latency.”

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