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Volume 1, Number 2 -- January 22, 2004

IBM Taps TopSpin for InfiniBand Gear for eServers

by Timothy Prickett Morgan

IBM's Enterprise Systems Group, which creates and markets its lines of servers and storage arrays, has picked Topspin Communications to supply it with InfiniBand host adapters, switches, and gateways as it rolls that connection fabric into its eServer line and "Shark" storage arrays. TopSpin, based in Mountain View, California, is emerging as a dominant player in the fledgling InfiniBand market.

Big Blue was one of the major proponents of the InfiniBand architecture, but does not want to make adapters, switches, and adapters itself. A few years ago, IBM partnered with InfiniSwitch, a maker of InfiniBand gear based in Westborough, Massachusetts, for the so-called 1X and 4X generations of InfiniBand adapters and switches for its xSeries line of servers. That company is now defunct, leaving IBM's other source for InfiniBand stuff, TopSpin, in the catbird seat. TopSpin's Server Switch line of 1X (2.5Gbps) and 4X (10Gbps) products have been certified on IBM's xSeries servers; they have also been certified on servers that cluster Oracle 9i RAC and DB2 8 databases.

Under a five-year agreement announced this week, IBM will be able to resell TopSpin's 4X and 12X (30Gbps) lines of products for its eServer line--xSeries Intel -based servers, pSeries and iSeries Power-based servers, and its zSeries mainframes--as well as for the Shark storage arrays. The agreement gives IBM access to future TopSpin technologies, and calls for co-development for InfiniBand products that are expected to come to market in 2004 and 2005, according to Stew Aaron, vice president of marketing and business development at TopSpin. Beyond that, no one can say for sure what will happen. The specs for the InfiniBand-II standard, which might run at 120Gbps or faster, are just now being conceived, says Audrey Heffrich, who is director of cluster development at IBM's Server Group.

She says that IBM will eventually roll InfiniBand technologies out across its server line. The xSeries line has already more or less been certified--the finishing touches are being done right now for xSeries machines getting Server Proven certification. DB2 Universal Database has been validated for running on xSeries machines in clustered configurations. Heffrich says that IBM will bring InfiniBand support to the pSeries line next, sometime in 2004, and confirmed that sometime in 2005 InfiniBand would come to the iSeries line. Support for the zSeries will come later than this, but exactly why this is the case was not made clear.

InfiniBand will see uses in high-performance computer clustering and database clustering. Aaron says that applications that need to link front-end infrastructure servers to back-end database servers will see benefits from the adoption of InfiniBand technologies. Ditto for application servers like IBM's own WebSphere (and indeed, any application server) and message queuing middleware like IBM's WebSphere-MQ. Heffrich says that InfiniBand will be particularly useful for IBM in situations where high bandwidth, low latency connections are necessary within a processor complex. It becomes, in effect, a backplane for connecting servers together into a single complex, much as Gigabit Ethernet is the backplane in most blade servers today. For longer-distance links, Ethernet-style links will be more useful, she explains. Eventually, she says, IBM will develop a proprietary link for its eServer line that will allow TopSpin's InfiniBand switches to link closer to servers and their main memories, thereby speeding up the links between clusters.

InfiniBand is apparently going to be one of the technologies that IBM uses to define on-demand computing, allowing a big cluster linked by switched fabric to be cut up into virtual clusters as needed. The company's Tivoli Orchestrator software and the software inside the TopSpin products will play a part in making this happen. The TopSpin gateways, which allow Ethernet and Fibre Channel devices to be hooked into InfiniBand fabrics, will be important as companies gradually figure out where InfiniBand fits best in their organizations and rolls it into their infrastructure.

The financial details of the agreement between IBM and TopSpin were not announced, but IBM was clearly concerned with the long-term viability of an InfiniBand parts supplier. InfiniSwitch, which merged with switch software maker Lane15 Software in March 2003, had burned through $52 million in venture funding before it closed its doors in September 2003. In November 2003, TopSpin secured a $20 million third round of funding, including money from Meritech Capital Partners, Accel Partners, Advent International, Duff Ackerman & Goodrich, Presidio Venture Partners, and Redpoint Ventures, bringing its total venture capital to date up to $67 million.

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Editor: Timothy Prickett Morgan
Managing Editor: Shannon Pastore
Contributing Editors: Dan Burger, Joe Hertvik, Kevin Vandever,
Shannon O'Donnell, Victor Rozek, Hesh Wiener, Alex Woodie
Publisher and Advertising Director: Jenny Thomas
Advertising Sales Representative: Kim Reed
Contact the Editors: To contact anyone on the IT Jungle Team
Go to our contacts page and send us a message.


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