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Will InfiniBand be confined to a niche?

Mar 20, 20034 mins

* The InfiniBand trend is a downward spiral

The high-speed I/O bus InfiniBand last week inched closer to niche status among data center clustering technologies as InfiniBand switch vendor InfiniSwitch bought start-up Lane 15.

InfiniBand was once touted as a standard replacement for the PCI and PCI-X buses in servers. It was also intended to displace proprietary technologies such as Myricom’s Myrinet. But it has suffered a series of setbacks.

Banderacom, a vendor of InfiniBand silicon, left the market. Intel pulled away from manufacturing InfiniBand silicon. HP wavered over its support of InfiniBand, saying that building an InfiniBand bridge to Gigabit Ethernet, rather than enabling servers natively, would suit its customers just fine. IBM then halted development of its InfiniBand silicon, and Microsoft stopped working on InfiniBand drivers for Windows 2003.

Omegaband, the company that had hired InfiniBand whiz Wendy Vittori, formerly of Intel’s InfiniBand group, became the first to go out of business, citing lack of funding. Vieo, a supplier of InfiniBand management, refocused on general systems management, using InfiniBand as the core for its appliance’s internal operations.

Mellanox still makes InfiniBand silicon and reference platform products that vendors can use to develop products of their own. The company has no intention, says a source, of selling these switches to first-tier OEMs such as HP, IBM or Dell, but rather to the assortment of InfiniBand start-ups that are left.

InfiniCon and Voltaire have InfiniBand switches and routers. Voltaire recently introduced a 96-port switch it OEMs from Mellanox. The company adds management software and a Layer 4-7 routing capability to the switch.

Lane 15 and InfiniSwitch, according to sources, were forced to merge by venture capitalists to receive any further funding. The combined company, called InfiniSwitch, garnered an additional $12 million, according to sources, giving it a total of $20 million to carry it through until customers adopt the new technology.

Paceline, according to sources, is looking for a buyer.

IBM, Dell and Sun say they are interested in InfiniBand, although none of them has yet implemented it in their products.

Jamie Gruener, a senior analyst with the Yankee Group, who was once keen on InfiniBand, says the next-generation bus is a technology searching for a market.

“I can’t seem to see where the market is,” Gruener says. “InfiniBand continues to face the same issues it faced in 2002: The market is largely driven by a dwindling group of start-ups that are searching for market validation from large system vendors, which are reluctant to invest in deep-seeded product plans until customers clamor for the technology. And while there are a lot of customers interested in InfiniBand, a vast majority don’t understand its value proposition – leaving InfiniBand to wallow in vertical market segments where performance pain is acute.”

Steve Duplessie, senior analyst for the Enterprise Storage Group, while not ready to say InfiniBand is dead, talks in even more glum terms. Of the merger between InfiniSwitch and Lane 15, he says: “It’s a merger of equally confused companies. InfiniSwitch never understood the market to begin with, and built a box that was way too big for a market that doesn’t exist yet, and Lane15 helps the world by building management software for those products, which of course, are for a market that doesn’t exist yet.”

That leaves us with the question many observers should ask – when the major systems vendors get around to using InfiniBand technology, what companies will be left to offer it to them?

“At the end of the day, the big OEMs that will drive InfiniBand into the data center will pick one or two technology partners, and call it a day,” Duplessie says.

In fact, late last week a significant event for InfiniBand occurred, as Topspin announced it would provide both the Fibre Channel and Gigabit Ethernet I/O modules for Sun’s next-generation InfiniBand-based server platforms. Will similar announcements follow from other vendors? Stay tuned.