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InfiniBand Marches on Despite Intel Retreat

Intel has put the brakes on some of its InfiniBand activities.

In a move that couldn't help but give InfiniBand a black eye, Intel has put the brakes on some of its InfiniBand activities, despite being one of the original developers of the high-speed I/O technology.

But Intel is by no means withdrawing its support for InfiniBand, says Allyson Klein, industry marketing manager for Intel's enterprise platform group. "Intel thinks InfiniBand is incredibly important," she says, and has maintained a dedicated team to promote the technology.

What Intel won't do is continue production of its InfiniBand chip, which Klein describes as "a financial decision." Why's that? "In this economy, we felt we needed to focus on our core strategic technologies," namely processors, she says.

Why was InfiniBand silicon exacting such a toll on Intel's finances? In short, "Intel made a bad bet," says Chuck Foley, president of InfiniCon, King of Prussia, PA, which makes a shared I/O system based on InfiniBand. Unlike silicon competitors Mellanox and IBM, Intel developed its technology around the so-called 1X (2.5Gb/s) spec, rather than the faster 4X (10Gb/s). "They bet that people would want to come in at 1X, but they were wrong - people wanted to come in at 4X," Foley says. Spending millions to catch up to the competition probably just didn't make sense, he hypothesizes.

Certainly, this won't be the first time Intel cedes control over a chip, points out Tom Halfhill, an independent technology analyst who specializes in embedded microprocessor technology. Case in point, "Intel no longer manufactures some of its own x86 microprocessors of older design even though there's a continuing demand for them. Intel is willing to cede those markets to other manufacturers simply because they don't fit Intel's high-volume, high-profit business model," Halfhill says.

Meanwhile, Intel will continue to remain active in developing and fostering InfiniBand, says Intel's Klein. Among Intel's InfiniBand activities are developing open-source APIs, performing compliance and interoperability testing, optimizing partners' applications, creating product development kits and test agents and, last but not least, co-chairing the InfiniBand Trade Association (IBTA).

Speaking of the IBTA, the industry consortium held a three-city road show this summer to promote the technology, which included storage bigwigs Network Appliance and Sun, as well as storage focused InfiniBand start-ups such as InfiniCon, InfiniSwitch, and Voltaire.

When it comes to storage, vendors highlight a number of possible roles InfiniBand can play. Initially, it's being peddled to storage vendors as a way to make faster, more scalable NAS solutions by building the multiprocessor devices connected via an InfiniBand backplane. Auspex is one such vendor that is taking this approach, and according to Voltaire's director of product marketing Asaf Somekh, "all the big guys [NAS vendors]" are also considering it.

Moving forward, however, InfiniBand will be used to speed performance of databases running off of NAS devices by using Direct Access File System (DAFS) - a NetApp pet - to simplify, or possibly consolidate fabrics.

With or without Intel silicon, InfiniBand vendors report active product trials, and anticipate shipping InfiniBand products by early 2003. In that respect, then, "Intel did what it set out to do," says InfiniCon's Foley, namely, create a vibrant community around its vision for high-speed I/O.

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