SAN JOSE, Calif. Sun Microsystems hopes to get a jump on Ethernet developers later this year when it rolls out its first Infiniband products capable of natively handling networking, storage and clustering jobs. A broad group of vendors are pursuing a similar vision of a unified data center network based on advances in Ethernet.
"In most data centers there are three installations often run by three different teams and using systems from three different vendors," said John Fowler, executive vice president of the systems division at Sun. "We think there are technology and economic advantages for bringing these three together," he said at a press event Wednesday (Feb. 13).
Fowler said Sun will roll out in 2008 products to run all data center traffic on Infiniband.
Ethernet proponents are developing a set of Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) standards to consolidate storage traffic on the local area network. The first chips based on a subset of those standards could start shipping late this year.
However, Mellanox Technologies (Santa Clara, Calif.), the sole supplier of Infiniband chips, has an edge in time-to-market. The chip designer is in the final stages of testing and writing software for its 40 Gbit/second Infiniband switch and adapter chips. Versions of those ConnectX chips that will handle Ethernet and Fibre Channel are expected to ship in the second half of the year.
"The aim is putting all traffic on a single set of wires," said Fowler. "Ethernet will be much later than Infiniband in being able to handle everything, [so] it will happen first over Infiniband," said Fowler. "We are participating in FCoE, and we are excited about the work we are doing in Infiniband," he added.
Andy Bechtolsheim, a Sun founder and chief architect of the company's system group, said Infiniband has several advantages over Ethernet in the race toward a unified network.
Infiniband has significantly higher bandwidth and lower latency than Ethernet. This year's 40 Gbit/s Infiniband products are expected to have latency as low as 60-70 nanoseconds. By comparison, 10 Gbit/s is the highest throughput for current Ethernet products that typically have higher latency figures.
"It's hard to build highly scalable fabrics without high speed interconnects," Bechtolsheim said.
In addition, Infiniband has advanced congestion management techniques and is designed in such a way to forbid dropping packets. An IEEE standards effort is attempting to create new reliability mechanisms for Ethernet but it is not clear when that work will be finished.
Ethernet will have a strong role to play, but in the near term network consolidation may happen first on Infiniband, he said.
"It's conceivable Infiniband will pass the Fibre Channel market in the next several years if it is successful encapsulating Fibre Channel," he added.
Bechtolsheim noted that his former employer, Cisco Systems, is making a strong push for unified networking on Ethernet. However the unfinished state of the IEEE standards and the relative slow progress on standards for technologies such as Ethernet will be an impediment, he said.
"Ethernet is inherently a multi-vendor market and there are political and social problems with it," Bechtolsheim said. "People want to prevent anyone from getting a competitive edge, so they drag out the standards processes until everyone can catch up," he said.
"Cisco has a history of launching pre-standard products, but when you are connecting to the storage area network and the local area network that will be more challenging. The issue is performance and compatibility," he added.
Although advances in Ethernet may come slowly, Infiniband lacks a foothold in today's data centers, said Dave Zabrowski, chief executive of Neterion Inc. (Cupertino, Calif.), a startup making 10Gbit/s Ethernet adapters.
"When you talk to end users about the data center there is no support for Infiniband," Zabrowski said. "The bottom line is data centers are trying to get rid of additional fabrics not install new ones," he added.