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InfiniBand now boasts Added Modesty

Jack of all switches?

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Intel Developer Forum Intel Developer Forum, San Jose The first real InfiniBand kit should be in the channels by the end of the year, Intel's Jim Pappas told us this week.

Chipzilla will also be opening porting labs in Hillsboro Oregon fairly shortly, and this week showcased a full InfiniBand rig on its showcase floor.

But in contrast to ten months ago, when we last spoke to Jim, the do-everything pitch for InfiniBand has been tempered somewhat.

InfinBand's benefits are twofold: technically, it's a neater, faster, more scalable I/O than a parallel PCI bus. It provides an interconnect inside and outside the box. And as such, it offers the possible commodity alternative to the internal I/O that's been used in lucrative high end systems dating back to the sixties.

As then, today's mainframes use a cross bar switch, and today's high-end Unix boxes use a switch or a combination of switch and bus. InfiniBand, it's been suggested, could provide a low price, high volume alternative which could give Dell (a founding member of the InfiniBand project) a leg up into the data centre.

Is all that too much to ask for? For some, yes. Mr Insight, Bert McComas compared InfiniBand to "an amphibious vehicle that can function on both land and water, but makes neither a good car nor a good boat", in a memorable advisory in January. "InfiniBand tries to portray itself as a jack-of-all-trades, yet finds itself lacking or unproven in many areas," he concluded.

The problem, Bert reckons, isn't that InfiniBand itself is spooked, but that it is being over-marketed. Also, he argues, IB only addresses hardware issues while skating around the software standards needed to make commodity HA clusters real.

In recent months we've heard VA Linux (an Intel-only OEM) talk about a world where InfiniBand never-quite-happens, and dedicated high bandwidth advocates SGI pooh-pooh the technology.

Well Pappas was careful to define InfiniBand to us. "InfiniBand won't replace FiberChannel, RAID and mirroring - all those things with FiberChannel that FiberChannel does well," he said. "FiberChannel Switches do a really good job connecting drives and drive cabinets together. And though these host bus adaptors are not inexpensive, manageability is the real cost."

Perhaps it's important to point out that InfiniBand isn't some malevolent Intel ruse. Far from it - it's the kind of basic hardware standard that yes, Intel knows really well, but that probably only Intel alone can succeed in setting as a standard.

Two years ago the storage and enterprise system folks knew would all benefit from a single switched I/O standard, but were grouped in rival FutureIO and System/IO camps, and InfiniBand was brokered as a unifying compromise.

So there's less talk of IB as a cluster interconnect (although the presentation we caught yesterday named this as a goal for 2005), and no talk at all of InfiniBand rolling over every other interconnect we know into oblivion. Pappas originally joined Intel to steer PCI towards market acceptance, and with PCI now standard on Sun and Apple systems (think how weird that will have sounded in 1993) you'd put a bet that he'd know how to steer this one through. ®

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