InfiniBand making storage in-roads

After being thought largely dead, the networking specification is back

Several vendors offering technology based on the InfiniBand high-speed networking specification are unveiling products this week, marking a revival of sorts for a technology once seen as a rival to Fibre Channel before it faltered several years ago.

Engenio Information Technologies Inc. in Milpitas, Calif., yesterday announced that it's shipping the industry's first native InfiniBand-enabled storage array, with data throughput rates of 10Gbit/sec., more than twice the speed of the fastest Fibre Channel-based arrays. The Engenio 6498 controller and Engenio 6498 storage system integrate InfiniBand connectivity with the company's previous all-Fibre Channel Model 6998 array, which offers either high-performance Fibre Channel or high-capacity Serial ATA disk drives.

Engenio, a subsidiary of LSI Logic Corp., resells its products through Silicon Graphics Inc. SGI has taken Engenio's back-end InfiniBand and created an end-to-end server-to-storage InfiniBand fabric using controller nodes from YottaYotta Inc. in Edmonton, Alberta. The SGI InfiniteStorage TP9700 array is available with configurations priced starting at $103,550.

Also yesterday, Isilon Systems Inc. in Seattle unwrapped a new network-attached storage cluster that uses InfiniBand as a backbone to scale its system up to 250TB of capacity under a single file system. The Isilon IQ 6000i system is built on rack-mountable 6TB nodes, which are each 2U high.

Parag Mallick, director of clinical proteomics at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, is using 10 Isilon IQ 6000is as back-end storage for three mass spectrometer machines that analyze blood proteins for a cancer research project. The laboratory's spectrometers generate about 1TB of data per day.

"We had a fairly massive scalability problem. So the idea of taking a device off-line [to add storage capacity to it] was unthinkable," Mallick said.

The scientists working on the project also need massive bandwidth because they run analytical programs against the hundreds of terabytes of data collected over several months. "I'm pretty sure can saturate it," Mallick said.

In general, InfiniBand today is being targeted at the scientific and government communities for transaction-heavy loads requiring high bandwidth. Some InfiniBand switches, such as the one from SilverStorm Technologies Inc., are already hitting 20Gbit/sec. throughput, leaving Fibre Channel and Ethernet at 4Gbit/sec. and 1Gbit/sec., respectively, in the dust. Engenio's system currently supports 10Gbit/sec. data rates, and the company eventually aims to extend that to 20Gbit/sec.

When InfiniBand was first introduced several years ago, it was touted as being a far faster server-to-storage networking technology, with throughput speeds of 10Gbit/sec. But the technology failed to gain momentum largely because of distance limitations. It only works well at distances of up to 30 feet, analysts said.

Now InfiniBand is making a slow comeback as a backbone technology for storage and server clusters and for use within the data center as a server-storage interconnect. The most telling event regarding the re-emergence of InfiniBand came with Cisco Systems Inc.'s purchase of switch maker Topspin Communications Inc. in April for $250 million, said Tony Asaro, an analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group Inc. in Milford, Mass.

IBM last year also signed a five-year agreement to resell Topspin's InfiniBand switches.

"We did a demo of InfiniBand in 2001, and that's when we thought InfiniBand would be the next big thing. Then it went into the valley of death," said Steve Gardner, director of product marketing at Engenio.

Companies such as King of Prussia, Pa.-based SilverStorm -- formerly known as InfiniCon Systems Inc. -- also released InfiniBand switches early in the game. In 2002, SilverStorm introduced a switch that acted as a server interconnect that could reduce external connections in high-availability server clusters by up to 50%.

Earlier this month, SilverStorm announced plans to introduce a switch with 20Gbit/sec. throughput in the first quarter of 2006.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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