IBM soups up SoftLayer for supers with Infiniband tech

Amazon-beating, Google-ganking, Microsoft-muddling high-speed IO lands

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IBM wants to make its newly acquired SoftLayer cloud a destination for high-performance computing workloads – so it has rolled out a high-end connectivity option unavailable in other large clouds.

Big Blue announced the addition of InfiniBand networking to SoftLayer on Wednesday. This sees the biz steal a lead on rivals like Amazon and Google, which offer typical Ethernet connections to customers. Microsoft, for what it's worth, supports a 40Gbps InfiniBand connection for its A8 and A9 instance class, along with remote direct memory access (RDMA) tech to make parallelized HPC apps run more efficiently.

The difference between the capability of Inifniband and Ethernet is significant, with SoftLayer's Infiniband capable of offering transfer speeds of up to 56Gbps, compared to 10Gbps Ethernet on other clouds.

However, Ethernet is proven to scale up to lash together tens of thousands of systems, whereas most Infiniband deployments are smaller scale. Infiniband vendor Mellanox hasn't spoken of any installations greater than 20,000 nodes, and IBM says it scales out SoftLayer in "pods" of about 5,000 servers.

Infiniband's lead over Ethernet has also been blunted by Amazon, which sells customers an "Enhanced Networking" service that uses SR-IOV (Single Root I/O Virtualization) to provide "higher packet per second (PPS) performance, lower inter-instance latencies, and very low network jitter" relative to traditional Ethernet – that's according to this Amazon FAQ.

To get around some of these issues IBM has made some changes to how it uses Infiniband, SoftLayer's chief information officer Sonny Fulkerson told The Register on Wednesday.

"One of the things we found when we started was InfiniBand as a raw protocol wasn't multi-tenant or security-aware," Fulkerson said. "One of the challenges we had early on was getting multi-tenanted security awareness there so we can put it in the cloud."

SoftLayer worked with the team at Platform Computing, which IBM acquired in 2011, to build the features needed for an Infiniband server and to correct some issues, Fulkerson said. "We've also made some extensions and things in there that give us a smooth path forward as other technologies evolve."

Pricing information for the new Infiniband service was not available at the time of writing, though a person familiar with the matter said it was already "being deployed with one or two high-end customers."

Separately, Rob Futrick, chief technology officer of HPC-as-a-service biz Cycle Computing, told The Register: "While many of our customers' applications require little server-to-server communication, there are still other workloads that depend on low-latency communication between the servers for performance.

"The availability of Infiniband among cloud providers will enable a new class of applications to leverage the agility and cost benefits of cloud computing – and will only further accelerate demand, and Cloud usage."

Though many cloud-based HPC applications today are built to be run as a multitude of batch jobs executing in parallel, SoftLayer believes that with Infiniband there's scope to bring in other applications as well.

"While it's true there's a class of applications that are batch-oriented and share nothing, there's what we call the East-West traffic – communication between processing nodes – is very intense," SoftLayer's Fulkerson said. With Infiniband, Softlayer's servers could be used for things like "weather modeling", he added.

IBM acquired SoftLayer for about $2bn in June as the company sought to take on Amazon Web Services, Google Compute Engine, and Microsoft Azure in the cloud. Since the buy, IBM has invested heavily in SoftLayer and rolled out new features and cut prices as it seeks to differentiate it from its competitors while matching them in the market.

Servers loaded with Infiniband connections should be able to be provisioned in about an hour, we understand, which is comparable to other bare-metal SoftLayer products, but far longer than the few seconds it takes to load up servers on Google, Digital Ocean, Amazon, or what have you. ®


Some small providers, such as ProfitBricks and Canadian hoster Carbon60 Networks also serve up Infiniband, but without the scale and slew of services available on SoftLayer.

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