InfiniBand aims to smash the data bind

If you dont know what InfiniBand is, dont worry. Within three years, you probably wont be able to avoid it. By then, every server sold will likely be InfiniBand-capable and the new data exchange standard will be part of the fabric of faster, better networks.

InfiniBand, short for "infinite bandwidth," promises to radically change how data centers are configured and operated. The new standard is designed to dramatically increase the velocity of information by overhauling a key bottleneck — the Peripheral Component Interconnect (PCI) bus — with a "switched fabric" network. That means it will be able to manage point-to-point communications through switches, like the telephone system, instead of relying on todays general-purpose, shared bus inside the computer. A shared bus carries one message at a time past many points; a switched fabric can juggle hundreds or thousands of messages at a time, both inside and outside the computer, moving them precisely from origin to destination.

In addition to increasing data throughput by a factor of 10 or more, InfiniBand may allow the redesign of the computer itself, perhaps even delivering on the old idea that the network is the computer.

Sure, other computing standards have been proposed and hyped as the Next Big Thing. Remember IBMs Micro Channel? But unlike other standards that have been adopted slowly, or not at all, InfiniBand appears likely to succeed for three reasons:

InfiniBand is backed by the biggest players in the server market. Compaq Computer, Dell Computer, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Intel, Microsoft and Sun Microsystems are all on the steering committee of the InfiniBand Trade Association, the 222-member group that oversees the specifications and development of the new standard. Those seven companies — whose combined 2000 revenue exceeded $283 billion — have the marketing and financial muscle to make InfiniBand the law of the land. And so far, it appears thats exactly what they intend to do.

InfiniBand has momentum. A spate of InfiniBand-focused start-ups, representing about $100 million of venture capital investment, combined with millions more being invested by companies like Compaq, Dell and Intel in their own InfiniBand-capable devices, gives the new standard more momentum than any other input/output (I/O) standard.

InfiniBand addresses the growing demand for both storage and speed. Last year, Michael Ruettgers, CEO of storage equipment maker EMC, estimated that many large companies will need to increase their data-handling capacity twelvefold to fifteenfold over the next five years. To meet that demand, the server market will boom. The technology intelligence firm IDC estimates that by 2004, the appliance server market will be worth $11 billion per year. Those numbers reinforce the growing need for faster storage that is helping to drive the InfiniBand standard. Demand for bandwidth is increasing everywhere, from the home computer user to the data center operator. Processors are getting faster; Ethernet is getting faster; but servers are still constrained by the speed of the PCI bus.

By supplying an architecture that can answer both needs, InfiniBand promises to increase both throughput and scalability throughout an enterprise while eventually reducing cyclical costs for many hardware upgrades.

InfiniBand servers, which should start appearing on the market early next year, offer speeds that are two times to 20 times faster than those possible through the PCI bus. "Every major computer system vendor knows the PCI bus is so old, it has mold growing on it," said Michael Hathaway, a partner at Austin Ventures, which has invested in three InfiniBand start-ups.