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Intel ready to fatten up server pipes

Feb 10, 20035 mins
Computers and PeripheralsNetworking

Intel will next month announce a 10G bit/sec Gigabit Ethernet NIC that promises to more than double the connectivity speed of today’s servers.

SAN JOSE – Intel will next month announce a 10G bit/sec Gigabit Ethernet NIC that promises to more than double the connectivity speed of today’s servers.

The Intel Pro/10GbE LR Server Adapter, to be released at the annual Intel Developers Forum in March, will let high-end Intel-based servers move data at up to 7G bit/sec. Experts say 10 Gigabit NICs also could help improve performance of applications residing on large servers, while keeping up with the growing bandwidth and processing capabilities of desktops – some of which are now as powerful as servers.

“This is the next logical step in the evolution of 10 Gigabit,” says Kevin Walsh, senior network engineer at the San Diego Supercomputing Center (SDSC). “We are looking to use [the new Intel NIC] for servers and data-intensive clusters.”

The Intel 10 Gigabit cards are in beta tests SDSC, which operates a cluster of 512 Linux servers connected with Gigabit Ethernet. The cluster is part of the Teragrid, a project being developed with the National Center for Supercomputing to build the world’s largest distributed grid computer.

While Walsh has not seen full 10G bit/sec throughput on the NICs that SDSC has tested, he says single 10 Gigabit NIC could bring other benefits to servers. Walsh says that when multiple Gigabit NICs are clustered in a server, overall performance is bogged down because the multiple devices are all making “interrupt requests” of the CPU and taking up bus bandwidth.

“You may not get a full 10 gigabits,” on a 10 Gigabit NICs, “but if you get 3 to 4 gigabits per second and lower the interrupt [request] count at the same time, you’re lowering the CPU cycles and making the [processor] available for computing and not networking,” he says.

Researchers and supercomputing technologists aren’t the only users looking for bigger server pipes. R.R. Donnelley, a Chicago printing services company, uses a HP Superdome Unix server to consolidate multiple applications onto a single box.

While server consolidation has helped save the company money, increasing the bandwidth to all those consolidated applications is a priority, says John Schaefer, the company’s vice president of infrastructure.

Pricing for the Intel Pro/10GbE LR has not been set, but the NIC is expected to cost “significantly less” than a 10GBase-X switch port, according to Tim Dunn, vice president and general manager of Intel’s LAN access division.

Per-port pricing for 10G Ethernet ranges from $17,000 to $80,000. Some industry watchers expect 10 Gigabit NICs to start at around $10,000 to $15,000 per unit.

The new Intel adapter will use the 1310-nanometer version of the 803.3ae 10G Ethernet standard, which supports communications up to 6.2 miles over single-mode fiber. The adapter fits into a PCI-X slot, and will work on PCI-X Version 1.0 and Version 2.0, which were approved last year. Drivers for the NIC will be available for Microsoft Windows 2000, Windows XP and Linux kernel Version 2.4.

Intel, the leader of the Gigabit Ethernet NIC shipments, displayed its 10 Gigabit “Kemano” NIC – as it is referred to at Intel – at the NetWorld+Interop 2002 show last spring as part of a 10G Ethernet Alliance demonstration. Instat/MDR expects the market for 10 Gigabit NICs to be limited at first, but shipments are expected to increase from around 2,000 units this year to 355,000 units worldwide by 2006.

While server and PC bus speeds previously lagged behind Gigabit LAN speeds, the recent improvements in server I/O technology, combined with 10G Ethernet, could give server speeds a major boost, Intel’s Dunn says.

“On older [PCI] systems, you could get only around 500M bit/sec if you used [a Gigabit NIC] at full duplex,” Dunn says. While previous PCI bus technology ran at 32 bits and 33 MHz, current PCI-X versions are 64-bit, and range from 133 MHz to 533 MHz, with the ability to move up to 4.3G byte/sec of data.

“We had initially set a goal of getting around 3 to 4” G bit/sec on the Intel NIC when the project was started two years ago, Dunn says. “We’re currently benchmarking at 6 to 7 gigabits per second” on the latest PCI-X bus systems.

While Intel is the first to market with a 10 Gigabit NIC, others soon might follow. S2IO Technologies, a Cupertino, Calif., start-up, says it will have 10G Ethernet ASICs ready to sell to NIC vendors by the second quarter. S2IO makes chips and complete NIC products based on the 802.3ae standard that also perform server CPU offload functions, such as TCP/IP processing, quality of service, load balancing and checksum offload. S2IO also is working with high-end server vendors such as HP, IBM and Sun, which could end up reselling S2IO’s products under their own brand, according to Dave Zabrowski, S2IO’s president and CEO.

While a few high-end users might be clamoring for 10 Gigabit pipes on servers, disinterest in the technology among mainstream companies would mean slow adoption of 10GBase-X cards, one analyst says.

“There isn’t much of a need for that kind of bandwidth on server applications, except for large file transfers,” says Mike Wolf, a research director with InStat/MDR.

Wolf says a few specific industries, such as video and multimedia editing or medical imaging, could benefit from servers with that much bandwidth.

Additionally, he says, many older PCI-based servers already installed in companies cannot support a 10 Gigabit NIC, and it is unlikely that a company would upgrade an entire server just to install a higher-speed NIC.