Obstacles for InfiniBand
Creating a new standard, as well as writing specifications and producing the hardware and software it needs, is no small task.
For InfiniBand to become a reality, a whole industry must grow up to produce chips, switches, routers and software. And though many companies are working on the problem, finished products wont be ready for several more months. Ironically, the first phase of implementation will likely be an InfiniBand card — produced by either the server supplier or a third party — that plugs into a PCI slot. The card will connect the server to an InfiniBand switch or other network device and give it a channel out to an InfiniBand subnetwork.
Since the fall of 1999, the InfiniBand movement has been gaining steam. When Intels Next Generation I/O specification merged with the Future I/O specification supported by Compaq, HP and IBM, the InfiniBand Trade Association was formed.
Microsoft, Sun and Dell quickly joined, and the organization has evolved into a sort of United Nations of the server I/O industry.
Since détente came to the server industry, competitors have seen fit to invest in some of the same companies and cooperate on standards development. For instance, Crossroads Systems has received investments from Dell and HP. Lane15 Software, which is writing InfiniBand network management software, got venture funding from both Compaq and Dell.
Those investments appear to show that there is a determination in the industry to assure that InfiniBand will be interoperable among different companies that are producing different types of InfiniBand devices.
Theres plenty to worry about when it comes to interoperability. The 1.0 specification covers 800 pages in two volumes. Although the association is trying to precisely define all aspects of InfiniBand operations, many challenges remain. The trade associations Interoperability Working Group — co-chaired by IBM and Sun — is holding compliance tests, called plugfests, in which InfiniBand products can demonstrate their compatibility. The cooperation of IBM and Sun — bitter rivals in the server market — "ensures that our compliance tests will be a democratic and fair process. That way we get better industry buy-in," Bradicich said.
The InfiniBand proponents claim an advantage over their predecessors in the field of server I/O. They can learn from the mistakes of the suppliers of the EISA bus, IBMs MicroChannel and PCI. Rather than repeat some of those mistakes, the new standard is relying heavily on software provided by independent companies such as Lane15 and Vieo.
"The advantage is in interoperability," said Eyal Waldman, chairman and CEO of Mellanox Technologies, a start-up that is producing InfiniBand chips. "And, it shortens the time to market because one provider can provide software to all the elements." The approach suits hardware makers and software makers alike because both are assured their products will be compatible across a variety of vendor devices.
Mellanox and another silicon start-up, Banderacom, plan to start shipping InfiniBand chips by the fourth quarter. When that happens, server and device manufacturers will start designing systems around those chips. Instead of an InfiniBand card for a PCI slot, servers will be produced with their own InfiniBand ports, governed by the chips added to the motherboard, said Gary Erickson, product marketing manager for HPs Intel-based Netserver line. But thats unlikely to be before the end of 2002 or sometime in 2003, he said.
At some point after that development, InfiniBand is likely to get designed into the servers governing chip set, the supporting chips closest to the CPU, predicted IBMs Bradicich. Thats when InfiniBand will begin showing that it is the standard to beat in terms of cost and efficiency.
Given that so many companies, like IBM and Intel, are supporting the migration to InfiniBand, its backers have no doubt that it will prevail. The world is moving from shared buses to switched fabrics, said Philip Brace, director of product marketing at Intel. Thats good news for InfiniBand, he said. "Its no longer a question of if this will happen. Its a question of when."
And given the current push, it probably wont be long.