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The InfiniBand alternative

Without I/O, computing just can't happen. But over the years, traditional PCI bus, SCSI bus and ATA I/O connectors have become almost too slow for today's computing needs.

Enter InfiniBand. The InfiniBand architecture was developed as an alternative to traditional I/O connectors by Compaq Computer, Dell Computer, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Intel, Microsoft and Sun Microsystems. It uses channel-based, switched-fabric technology that supports multiple concurrent links.

The purpose of InfiniBand is to provide a single type of connection for server-to-server, server-to-storage and server-to network communications, said John Enck, senior research director, server and directory strategies at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Group.

"InfiniBand addresses two problems," Enck said. The first problem is the limitations on bandwidth of traditional PCI bus connectors, which cause bottlenecks. InfiniBand is slated to remove the bottlenecks, he said.

The second problem is that today's servers have fiber channel, SCSI and Gigabit Ethernet connections, among others. This makes it difficult to manage connections. InfiniBand allows servers to use one connector for all purposes, and it is high speed, doesn't take up a lot of space, and has a manageable infrastructure for server-side I/O, Enck said.

InfiniBand isn't all peaches and cream, however. Right now, the product looks good on paper, but for widespread adoption, major infrastructure changes will need to be made, such as new cabling and remodeling the back end of the server architecture, Enck said.

"It's certainly not just a smooth 'bring it in and plug it in,' " he said.

Additionally, the software capabilities to really make full use of the InfiniBand architecture are still a long way off, according to Enck. Basically, it's a case of the hardware being much more advanced than the software.

InfiniBand probably won't start shipping in servers until the end of 2002 due to different adoption rates, he said.

By 2003, InfiniBand should penetrate into server-to-server connections. In the server-to-storage connection market, Enck doesn't expect to see adoption until 2005. "Storage people are not as wild (and) in no hurry to embrace it," he said.

In the server-to-network area, InfiniBand may never be adopted because there are other technologies that can compete with it, Enck said.

There is still a lot of argument over InfiniBand standards. At the InfiniBand Trade Association, three different protocols are being proposed for server-to-server, server-to-storage and server-to-network connections. Meanwhile, Microsoft claims only one protocol, Winsock, is needed, Enck said. This may hamper adoption of the standard, he added.


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