Intel and the Ethernet

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Another sign that the future of data center performance lies not in processing and storage but in advanced high-speed networking: Intel's recent purchase of the Ethernet assets of the defunct NetEffect.


The chip giant, which just posted a cool $2 billion third-quarter profit at a time when much of the rest of the economy was hitting the skids, shelled out a mere $8 million for NetEffect's line-up, which consists largely of 1 and 10 GbE adapters for server and blade cluster environments. It's interesting to note that NetEffect's bankruptcy filings listed debts of about $50 million with assets of only $1 million, meaning Intel paid a premium for a technology that will only supplement its existing lines of network adapters.


Ethernet has emerged as a key technology for Intel's LAN Access Division, which will likely absorb the NetEffect assets, plus about 30 of the former company's engineering staff. The group concentrates largely on finding connectivity solutions for virtualized environments, clustered servers and storage networking. These days, the rush is on to find a unified fabric that can bring all network and storage traffic under one protocol, with Ethernet as the leading contender.


What's interesting in all of this is the fact that NetEffect was originally devised as an Infiniband provider back when Intel, HP and others had high hopes of that protocol becoming the unified fabric of the future. Those plans didn't pan out, and Infiniband found success as a high-end server interconnect. NetEffect, did, however, continue to support Infiniband through developments like iWARP, which runs Infiniband on top of Ethernet and TCP. This will do doubt allow Intel to continue to stir the Infiniband pot while it cooks up new Ethernet approaches.


Indeed, it would be to Intel's benefit to have not only a unified fabric for storage and networking, but one that works equally well for standard enterprises and the HPC crowd as well. As this editorial in HPCwire points out, the only other player with a working iWARP solution is Chelsio Communications, although companies like Woven Systems are targeting the HPC market with straight 10 GbE technology. In the end, though, if it comes down to a war of attrition for both the high end and low end of the market, which of these companies has the resources to outlast the others?


While it's true that the increased need for high-speed networking is driven largely by advances in chip-level processing, mainly the multicore designs championed by Intel, it's the networking that is starting to differentiate one enterprise from another. Going forward, productivity won't be measured by how much data can be generated or stored, but by how quickly it can be shuttled from place to place.