Talk of a unified fabric for the enterprise usually centers around Ethernet technology and its improving ability to handle both iSCSI and Fibre Channel traffic, as well as voice and data communications. The drive is gaining momentum with the rollout of advanced 10 GbE platforms and protocols like Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE).
But there is a growing movement afoot to expand Infiniband from its traditional role as a high-performance server interconnect into a unified fabric solution. The arguments in Infiniband's favor, as this editorial on HPCwire points out, are its flexibility and reliability, and the fact that while the Ethernet community is just getting around to 10 Gbps performance, Infiniband is already rolling out 20 Gbps and is well on the way to 40 Gbps. And while some may argue that not everyone can afford a premium HPC solution, that argument tends to crumble as the actual cost of 10 GbE switches becomes more well known.
The need for an ever-wider pipeline is likely to become even more crucial as virtualization takes hold in the data center. Here, again, Infiniband holds an edge, according to Jerome Wendt, lead analyst at DCIG. Infiniband already incorporates its own set of I/O directors, allowing you to virtualize I/O within your existing infrastructure, plus it enjoys native support from most enterprise operating systems.
Several key manufacturers are playing roles in plying Infiniband as a unified fabric. Sun Microsystems, for one, is actively pursuing Infiniband as an alternative to the Ethernet-based fabrics pitched by Cisco and Brocade. At the moment, the most likely enabling technology would come from Mellanox, which is seeing a spike in orders for its Infiniband switches since VMware added native support in the ESX 3.5 system last January.
It's worth noting, however, that the Ethernet crowd isn't sitting still. Besides working out the protocols for 40 GbE and beyond, efforts are under way to push the performance of existing technology to Infiniband levels. Woven Systems, for one, claims that its 10 GbE EFX 1000 switch can deliver DDR Infiniband performance with the help of specialized management tools designed for multipath environments.
It may seem that unified fabrics are a concern for only cutting-edge enterprises, and to a certain extent that's true. But as virtualization and consolidation continues to place more data on dwindling hardware infrastructures, the number of network cards and the amount of cabling could become unsustainable sooner rather than later in enterprises across the board.