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$30m behind Ethernet darling

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Level 5 Networks on Monday cobbled together a banner announcement session for a start-up, as the company delivered word of $30m in venture funding and released its first product under the EtherFabric brand.

Never heard of Level 5? You're not alone. The 50 or so employee company based in Sunnyvale, California dabbles deep in the data center. It's looking to extend the life of Ethernet by speeding up the way servers deal with networking traffic. This isn't the type of thing you'd want to talk about over a beer, unless you're a loyal Register reader.

Illuminata's Gordon Haff does a nice job of explaining Level 5's approach to modernizing Ethernet as we head towards 10 GbE networks and their associated latency problems.

"Level 5’s 'EtherFabric' essentially replaces the OS’s TCP/IP stack with a dynanic link library in user space that then talks directly to the EtherFabric card without normally having to communicate or copy data to the TCP/IP stack within the operating system. (This boundary crossing is where a lot of TCP/IP’s inefficiency comes from.) Level 5 claims a 2x improvement in CPU efficiency and latency reductions to less than 10 microseconds-similar to InfiniBand."

This approach has proved interesting enough to the likes of Oak Investment Partners, Accel Partners, Amadeus Capital Partners and IDG Ventures for them to shove $30m in front of Level 5.

These investors will watch anxiously to see how the new EtherFabric (Isn't that what Hunter S. made dreams out of? - Ed.) NIC sells. The adapter ships as a 2-port. 1Gbit/s device that slots into your typical rackmount server. It should help speed up web and application serving tasks as well as cluster performance and will sell at $295 in high volume or $495 in low volume.

Level 5's approach is somewhat similar to that of Alacritech, which makes a TOE (TCP/IP Offload Engine) card designed primarily for storage networks. The idea with the Alacritech product is again to offload some networking traffic and free up processors to handle heavy data crunching. Companies such as Sun Microsystems and Intel are looking to build similar functions into their multicore server processors.

Purely on the server side of the market, Level 5 gives customers the option of sticking with their existing Ethernet networks instead of moving to something like Infiniband or iWarp.

"If Level 5’s various claims prove out, it’s an intriguing approach," Haff writes. "Especially the transparency to applications and standard Ethernet switches. But one big challenge for Level 5 Networks is that, if its technology were built onto system boards, the delivered value would be pretty clear. (We observed something similar when we looked at Symbium’s lights-out management board a few weeks back. But, in the nearer term, when customers need to buy the capability in the form of an add-on thrid-party board and then install third-party software, the win is less immediately obvious. At the very least, it requires a conscious effort on the part of an end-user customer."

More information on the Level 5 NIC can be found here. ®

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