Voltaire two-times InfiniBand with 10Gb Ethernet

Crossing the protocol divide

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InfiniBand switch maker Voltaire announced this morning that it would be crossing the high-speed protocol divide and will later this year launch a set of converged switches based on the 10 Gigabit Ethernet protocol.

While the current InfiniBand technologies offer 20 Gb/sec (dual data rate) and 40 Gb/sec (quad data rate) bandwidth, which is obviously a lot more pipe than 10GE can offer, it has always been a tough sell to go up against Ethernet except in niche markets where the highest speed possible is necessary. And so it is as converged storage and server networks - the very problem that InfiniBand was designed to solve but never did except for some data warehouses and supercomputer clusters - are becoming all the rage as Fibre Channel over Ethernet is going mainstream to link storage to servers.

With FCoE, companies can converge their networks around 10GE and that will leave InfiniBand specialists like Voltaire out in the cold. Which is why Voltaire has not only warmed up to 10GE, but is embracing it side-by-side with its InfiniBand switches.

But not all 10GE networks will be architected the same or are created equally. Voltaire has lots of experience, it says, in building out big InfiniBand networks with a relatively flat topology that are not only fast and efficient, but which scale further than the hierarchical switching topologies of big Ethernet setups. Such setups have layer 2 switches that control server access to the network, core switches that are the backbone, and layer 3 switches that act like aggregation conduits between the two layer.

Voltaire intends to take the flat, scalable topology it has created for InfiniBand and apply it to 10GE switches and networks and, more importantly, leverage that flatness and its strong OEM relationships with the major server makers to go up against networking industry juggernaut Cisco Systems.

"Cisco did not abandon its multitier approach with California," explains Asaf Somekh, vice president of marketing at Voltaire. While Cisco is converging storage and server traffic on the Unified Computing System 6100 fabric interconnect and UCS 2100 fabric extenders - which converge the storage and server networks inside of a rack - you still have to wrestle with (and pay for) costly upstream switches.

"I think it is time to deal with the network and look at it in a different way," adds Somekh, saying that the same transition happened as companies shifted from big, expensive SMP scale-up servers to distributed, scale-out architectures. "It is time to change."

As for what these new Voltaire 10GE switches might look like, you can forget about getting anything but the skinniest of details. Somekh says that the 10GE switches will be available later this year, and during the summer, the company will provide more feeds and speeds about the products. In the meantime, you can peruse a whitepaper about the future products.

To Voltaire's way of thinking, Ethernet has not so much beat InfiniBand as it has evolved to take on some of its more important attributes of InfiniBand, putting it on track for a sort of convergence that is alternatively called Converged Enhanced Ethernet (CEE) or Data Center Ethernet (DCE). The technologies that CEE switches will have - and that InfiniBand already has - include multilane priority scheduling, I/O virtualization, lossless data transfer, low latency links, layer 2 network multipathing, RDMA protocols, and hardware congestion management, among others.

InfiniBand will continue to have bandwidth advantages. 40GE Ethernet will almost certainly be the next bump up after 10GE, and 100GE is still years away unless the industry changes. While there has been a lot of talk about 10GE, plenty of servers are still linked to their networks using 1GE links and 10GE is often relegated to the role of inter-switch communication. So now is a good time for Voltaire to jump into the 10GE racket and go after a much larger addressable market than it can take on with InfiniBand products.

A decade ago, InfiniBand was being defined to be the be-all, end-all converged storage and server network fabric, just like Itanium was going to be the one and only remaining 64-bit processor left by about now. (Remember that?) The market did not pan out as expected for a lot of complex reasons, but it has been a pretty good business for Voltaire.

According to Somekh, the big box counters like IDC and Gartner as well as Dell'oro Group, which tracks networking, don't bother to track InfiniBand numbers. But as best as Voltaire can figure, the market is worth a few hundred million dollars per year in annual sales and Voltaire reckons it has about 35 per cent revenue share (the biggest piece), with QLogic, Mellanox, and Cisco (via its TopSpin acquisition) each taking some share too.

Voltaire, which is based in Billerica, Massachusetts, and traded publicly on the Nasdaq, posted sales of $62m in 2008, up 16 per cent. That makes Voltaire one of the fastest growing tech companies by revenue growth across the entire EMEA region, despite the global economic meltdown that certainly put a damper on server sales and network projects. Voltaire has $55m in cash and around 185 employees and is girding its loins for a battle for 10GE networks.

Or more precisely, perhaps, Voltaire is offering itself up as a weapon in the arsenal of its server OEM partners, who will be looking for a way to blunt Cisco's California server attack on their data center turf. Voltaire currently sells InfiniBand adapters and switches through all the key server makers - including IBM and Hewlett-Packard as well as Sun Microsystems, NEC, Bull, Rackable Systems, and Silicon Graphics (soon to be eaten by Rackable).

That Dell and Fujitsu are not on that list is significant, but not debilitating. And it could change once 10GE switches are in the field. Somekh says that depending on the quarter, somewhere between 75 and 80 per cent of its sales comes through the OEM channel. A channel that, despite all of the public niceties, is plenty annoyed at Cisco for not staying in its network box.

"Someone really helped us out recently," jokes Somekh. "We really liked Cisco's new moves, which is really helping us with the OEMs."

While the Voltaire 10GE switches won't be available until later this year, that is no reason not to start the marketing battle right now. Somekh says that at a large financial services company looking at prototype California gear from Cisco as well as the Voltaire 10GE switches paired with servers from one of the OEMs, the Voltaire setup gives Cisco a whipping. On a 1,000 server configuration, the Voltaire networking setup costs half as much as the networking portion of a California setup, while offering one-tenth the network latency (thanks to the flat topology), one-third the power consumption, and better scalability (four times the core network capacity, to be precise).

None of this means Voltaire is abandoning InfiniBand. The company just started shipping a 40 Gb/sec InfiniBand switch in December and plans to have a 40 Gb/sec director-class InfiniBand switch out the door late in the second quarter. And it will continue to enhance these products along the InfiniBand roadmap, just as before today's announcement. ®

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