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Mellanox cranks up InfiniBand switches

648 ports and 40 Gb/sec are the magic numbers

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While generalizing a bit, Monson says that the increase in speed and bandwidth of the InfiniBand protocol has not only allowed parallel supercomputer clusters to scale out, it has also allowed them to run more efficiently at the processor level. Monson put together some numbers from the past couple of Top 500 supercomputer rankings, based on the Linpack Fortran benchmark tests that are used to rank the machines, which suggested that the typical cluster using Gigabit Ethernet was able to run at about 52 per cent efficiency. (That percentage is the result of dividing the maximum performance of a machine, in gigaflops, on the Linpack test by its peak theoretical floating point performance.)

For machines linked by 10 Gigabit Ethernet switches, the efficiency rose to 61 percent. But machines lashed together using 20 Gb/sec InfiniBand are hitting 74 per cent efficiency, and Mellanox will demonstrate this week on some new machines added to the June 2009 Top 500 list that comes out on Tuesday that it can drive 92 per cent efficiency with 40 Gb/sec InfiniBand. The choice of protocol and bandwidth certainly does make a difference at the system level (as you would expect).

It would seem that you can get your flops by spending money on servers or on networking, but either way, you are going to spend more money than you thought you had to.

Speed and low-latency are not the only features that Mellanox will be touting in its IS5000 family of 40 Gb/sec switches this week. Prior InfiniBand switches from Mellanox supported fat tree configurations, but the new switches can do 2D mesh, 3D torus, and hybrid schemes, giving HPC customers more options for how the server nodes in their clusters are linked together (and thereby affecting how applications perform). The new switches also had adaptive routing, port mirroring (important for security), end-to-end congestion management, and subnet partitioning.

The FabricIT management software that Mellanox has cooked up will be another thing it tries to use as a lever. It has hardware configuration and management features at the host, chassis, switch, and fabric levels, as well as automated performance tuning and power management features.

Mellanox has certainly been affected by the economic meltdown, but has done better than many other IT suppliers, even if profits are under pressure. In 2008, the company's revenues rose by 28.1 per cent to $107.7m and it brought $22.4m of that to the bottom line, down 37.1 per cent. In the first quarter, Mellanox felt the pinch more, with sales of $22.6m (down 10.3 percent) and net income of $2.1m (down 54.4 per cent.) The company has given guidance for its second quarter sales to be in the range of $24m to $24.5m, which is a decline of 12 to 15 per cent. But after having gone public in February 2007, Mellanox is still holding on to $186.9m in cash and has a market capitalization of $368m.

While this is about half of its value in the wake of its IPO, the company's shares are clawing their way back upwards after falling to a quarter of its IPO valuation at the height of the economic meltdown last fall. The next $12 in share price is going to be a lot harder to achieve than the prior bump of $6 since the beginning of the year. It is also going to take a long time, unless someone decides that they want to be in the switch business instead of partnering, and artificially raises the valuation of Mellanox.

An acquisition of Mellanox seems unlikely, but not outside the realm of possibility for a storage vendor looking for some more play in servers. Server vendors will play it cool, letting QLogic, Mellanox, Voltaire, Blade Network and others be Switzerland, while Cisco tries to do the whole server and networking stack by its lonesome. ®

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