SAN JOSE, Calif. A handful of Intel's former competitors in the chip set business are at it again, this time in the market for 10 Gbit/second Ethernet chips. ServerEngines (Sunnyvale, Calif.), founded by the people behind former chip set company ServerWorks, is rolling out a 10G Ethernet device that will vie for sockets with a part introduced recently by the x86 giant.
The BladeEngine chip from the 185-person startup is garnering significant praise from analysts for its performance, power, cost and features. However, it is one of a handful of products dueling with Intel about how best to address the market for 10G Ethernet.
Like many startups, ServerEngines takes an approach of handling most of the work on the Ethernet controller using hardware accelerators called TCP offload engines (TOEs). Intel is taking a very different approach, called I/O Acceleration Technology (I/OAT), putting unique features in its multicore processors, chip sets and own Ethernet chips that provide some of the TOE performance at a lower cost.
Sun Microsystems has an approach roughly similar to Intel's but leveraging its own multicore Sparc CPUs.
One analyst said both techniques may succeed in different markets. The TOE approach may be best suited for storage applications that use relatively long packets, while the Intel and Sun techniques may fare best on Web servers and mainstream applications that use smaller packets.
ServerEngines is driving the storage angle hard by building deep hardware and software support into its chip for iSCSI, an Internet Protocol version of the SCSI interface widely used for storage. The startup acquired Gbit-class iSCSI technology including a 45-person software team from Adaptec in March 2005.
The company's BladeEngine includes dual 10 and 1 Gbit Ethernet media access controllers (MACs) as well as hardware to accelerate both TCP for networking and UDP for iSCSI storage. ServerEngines has demonstrated a working version of the chip delivering up to 8 Gbits/s of iSCSI traffic in each direction on a card that will sell for as little as $500 in volume to OEMs.
"Considering the overhead for iSCSI, that's awesome," said Nathan Brookwood, principal of market watcher Insight64 who has seen the demo. "I don't know anyone who is getting that level of performance," he added.
Over the past five years, a number of startups have pursued iSCSI in an effort to supplant the entrenched market for running storage traffic over relatively expensive Fibre Channel networks. However, to date most of those startups have died or been acquired and the market for iSCSI has not panned out due to the fact most of the chips cost too much and delivered too little.
"The iSCSI performance has not been competitive with Fibre Channel to date. If anything will put iSCSI on the map, it's this new combination of performance and price from ServerEngines," said Brookwood.
"The maturity of their iSCSI solution impressed me," said Bob Wheeler, senior analyst with market watcher The Linley Group (Mountain View, Calif.). "They have had hardware for some time and been quietly working on the software," he added.
ServerEngines will sell its chips on small adapter cards for servers as a link to external 10G nets. It also aims the part for use inside server blades to run networking, clustering and storage traffic inside a chassis that has separate adapter cards for server processors and hard disk drive storage.
By running all the processor and storage traffic over one internal network, OEMs can save the costs of supporting multiple boxes and networks such as the relatively pricey and power hungry Fibre Channel, said Kim Brown, vice president of business development for the startup.
"We are talking with IBM and other vendors about going with this kind of a system. We think once someone crosses over they will all go for it," said Brown.
Data center vendors often talk about running multiple kinds of traffic over a single type of network, but so far the concept has not been proven in the market. The blade server "is one place where the fabric convergence story makes a lot of sense," said Wheeler.
"There is some merit to that concept," agreed Brookwood. However he noted most server blade systems still put individual drives on each server card because that's what end users request.
"IT guys still want to be able to boot each card locally, so it's almost more of a psychological issue than a technical one," Brookwood said.