InfiniBand is a low-latency, high-speed network interconnect that runs at 40 Gbps compared to Ethernet at 10 Gbps and Fibre Channel at 8 Gbps. A handful of InfiniBand vendors in the early 2000s saw the technology as a building block for clustered storage, and envisioned it as a replacement or at least an alternative to Fibre Channel. But InfiniBand never caught on widely in storage, although it powers some of the world's leading supercomputers and plays a role in other high-performance computing (HPC) environments.
The Mellanox-Voltaire acquisition leaves Mellanox and QLogic as the only InfiniBand device vendors, and QLogic is primarily a Fibre Channel adapter company.
In recent years, InfiniBand vendors pitched the technology as a better bridge to converged networks than the nascent Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) protocol, and brought out 10 Gigabit Ethernet (10 GbE) products. In April, the InfiniBand Trade Association released a specification for building Remote Direct Memory Access (RDMA) into 10 Gigabit Data Center Ethernet (DCE) networks. This is known as RDMA over Converged Ethernet (RoCE) and pronounced "Rocky."
In a blog about the Mellanox-Voltaire deal last week, Wikibon analyst Stu Miniman wrote that Mellanox could broaden its market by powering cloud and "big data" applications but faces greater competition from Ethernet vendors.
"The market for low-latency solutions is moving beyond the traditional HPC market to broader cloud applications … specifically supporting so-called big data environments," he wrote. "InfiniBand and Ethernet technologies will continue to battle for OEM design wins and customer sales. Overall, I won't bet against Ethernet being the ultimate winner (and you see Mellanox/Voltaire moving into this market), but InfiniBand is having a small resurgence with a growing number of solutions …"
In an interview with SearchStorage.com, Miniman said the deal helps the expanded Mellanox because it removes most of the competition in the InfiniBand market, leaving QLogic as the only other player. It also gives the merged company the best of both vendors' product lines by combining Mellanox silicon and adapters with Voltaire switches and software.
"Voltaire made better switches," he said. "With the removal of Mellanox switches, it reduces competition for Voltaire switches. The two companies were competing head to head with switches, and it was driving down the price for both. It also helps QLogic because it has one less competitor."
However, Miniman said he expects InfiniBand to remain a minor player in storage networks, mostly as a backplane interconnect on clustered systems. "There are more products using InfiniBand as part of a storage solution than as a storage interconnect on its own," he said, listing Oracle, Xsigo, DataDirect Networks, Isilon and IBM (SONAS) as examples of vendors that use InfiniBand in storage products.
Greg Schulz, founder and senior analyst at StorageIO Group, said he agrees that the Mellanox-Voltaire acquisition will not drive InfiniBand deeper into storage.
"I see InfiniBand continuing its role in storage primarily as a back-end , high-speed, low-latency interconnect or virtual backplane between nodes in clustered storage systems," Schulz said. "So the song remains pretty much the same for InfiniBand, at least from a general-purpose storage networking perspective."
Schulz said he expects Mellanox to continue to try to push InfiniBand into converged networks, pointing out it already sells InfiniBand-to-Ethernet and InfiniBand-to-Fibre Channel adapters.
"Mellanox and Voltaire have a presence in Ethernet, and it only makes sense given their product portfolio that we will see them leverage their connectivity diversity," he said.
However, one of the vendors leading the converged network charge is Cisco Systems Inc., which acquired InfiniBand vendor Topspin Communications Inc. in 2005 but no longer sells InfiniBand products. Cisco is concentrating on enhanced Ethernet and FCoE for converged networks.
"Cisco has many other things to talk about right now, and InfiniBand does not appear to be one of them," Schulz said.
Wikibon's Miniman and Schulz both pointed out that Oracle is worth watching in the InfiniBand picture. Oracle acquired 10% of Mellanox stock in late October, and could use its investment in Mellanox to gain greater insight into future InfiniBand products than its competitors.