For as long as data networks have existed, people have wanted faster performance. When Ethernet was invented at Xerox Parc in the 1970s, it ran at a puny 3mbps. Before long, a 10mbps Ethernet became a standard, but in the early 1990s the industry decided this was not enough.
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It tussled for a couple of years over different standards for a 100mbps Ethernet technology, and soon all network interface cards were able to handle these speeds. A few years later 1gbps Ethernet came along, but even this was not enough to sate our need for speed.
Now, companies are exploring options for 10gbps technology, mainly as a way to increase performance within datacentres. Clusters, storage architectures and blade servers all need very fast communication mechanisms to exchange increasingly large amounts of data.
The problem with increasing the speed of the network is that it can adversely affect the server. When an application sends Ethernet traffic across a network, it traditionally uses the computer's processor to manage the communications.
The processor interprets an application's data output and feeds that through to the network. The more traffic you put through it over time, the fewer CPU cycles the processor has available to do its other jobs. Consequently, using traditional Ethernet technologies, the server's performance is likely to decrease as the speed of the network increases. So, what do you do?
One option is the TCP offloading engine (Toe). This takes the TCP/IP stack that traditionally runs in software as part of the operating system and puts it into firmware, usually on the network interface card. The idea is that, just as with high-end graphics applications that use dedicated processors for rendering, a dedicated hardware TCP/IP stack will maintain network performance without hindering application processing.
However, not everyone is convinced by Toe. One problem is that using a coprocessor to manage TCP/IP may only solve the problem in the short term. As the network speed and processor speed increase, the Toe may find itself increasingly strained by higher workloads.
Unlike graphics processors, there is nothing in the TCP instruction set that enables it to scale, says Steve Pope, chief technical officer at Solarflare, which designs high-performance networking Asics (application specific integrated circuits).
Instead, experts argue that the best way to solve the problem is to do away with the problem of TCP/IP communications altogether, and get applications to write directly to another server's memory across the network. This concept, called remote direct memory access (RDMA), lies at the heart of high-performance connectivity technologies such as Infiniband.
"Infiniband was originally designed for processor-to-processor data transfers, where you wanted to move data very quickly and transparently with as little overhead as possible," explains William Terrill, an associate analyst at Info-Tech Research.
Infiniband's very high speeds make it particularly useful for applications such as clustering, where multiple machines have to speak to each other to provide workload sharing and failover services. However, the drawback has been a lack of standardisation.
Bill Boas is vice chairman of the Open Fabrics Alliance (OFA), formerly the OpenIB Alliance, which was founded in 2004 as an industry effort to produce an open source Linux stack for Infiniband.
"We did not want to have to figure out whether we should be using this or that supplier stack, and we did not want to buy Infiniband hardware from just one supplier," he says.
This is one of the reasons that Infiniband failed to take the world by storm. Shortly after launch, advocates of the protocol tried to broaden its scope, proposing it as a solution to many more things than mere clustering. But Infiniband did things in new ways, was relatively complex and promised to cause headaches for those who adopted it within commercial datacentres.
Another problem has been incompatibility. Bob Noseworthy, technical director at the University of New Hampshire's Dartmouth Testing Lab, says, "There has been no desire to have a high-end financial institution or national lab to rewrite their applications every time they change a supplier's hardware." Dartmouth Lab tests different suppliers' high-speed networking equipment to make sure that it works together.
To overcome such limitations, the industry is working on iWarp, which some are hoping will provide the industry standard connectivity that Infiniband has not. iWarp is supposed to bring traditional Ethernet technology and RDMA together, giving users the best of both worlds.
For Rick Maule, chief executive at iWarp Asic developer NetEffect, the bottlenecks in handling TCP/IP traffic arise due to the need to move data between different parts of a system's Ram and getting the operating system involved in packet processing. This leads to a slowdown in networking speeds by as much as 40%, according to Maule. iWarp attempts to solve these problems while keeping datacentres grounded in the Ethernet world.
The ultimate aim for iWarp, says Maule, is to create a single network encompassing three distinct fabrics: storage, networking and clustering. If the protocol can pull this off, it would be of huge interest to network managers who currently have to manage different fabrics for protocols such as Infiniband, Fibre Channel and conventional Gigabit Ethernet.
But iWarp has been in development for some years. The University of New Hampshire's Dartmouth Testing Lab formed the iWarp Testing Consortium in 2004, and in the past couple of years, organisations such as Network Appliance have made noise about it. Today, many of them do not want to discuss it. What happened?
"I think the demand may not have been there," says Anne MacFarland, director at consultancy the Clipper Group, who wrote a report on iWarp in 2004. "People are very careful about spending these days, and unfortunately that is very inconvenient for things like iWarp, which need the demand to push them into adoption."
Another reason for some suppliers' reticence is that they could be preparing iWarp products. Noseworthy says several of the companies engaged in iWarp interoperability testing at the lab are preparing for significant developments in the next few months.
iWarp is a collection of four different standards that have been making their way through the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), and which have now all been ratified. It seems as if the road is clear for the technology to move forward.
Maule believes that the IETF, which is defining the standards, will not break with the existing Ethernet standard in its pursuit of higher speeds. He says a server with an iWarp-enabled network interface card should be able to run the same applications on the same network whether the iWarp acceleration on the card is turned on or not.
However, iWarp sceptics paint a different picture, arguing that RDMA requires a different type of interaction with the machine transmitting the data. Because it bypasses the operating system and goes straight into the machine's memory, they say that a different protocol stack is necessary.
Why the different stories? Although iWarp cards will communicate with each other using the same Ethernet standard, the RDMA technique means they will speak to computer applications differently, and will therefore need a protocol stack linking the card to the application.
Where will this come from, and do we face the same application interoperability problems with iWarp that we faced with Infiniband? Will companies have to rewrite their applications every time they switch iWarp suppliers? Not necessarily.
The Open Fabrics Alliance changed its name from the OpenIB Alliance for a reason. It has been working on the open source Infiniband stack that it was originally formed to produce, but has since expanded the scope to produce a similar Linux-based protocol stack for iWarp.
What does this mean for the positioning of the two technologies? Infiniband has its root in the high-performance computing market, and even with the new stack already shipping, it will take the technology some time to penetrate the datacentre in sufficient numbers, if this happens at all. iWarp, on the other hand, comes from low-end roots.
Maule, who is now selling iWarp-enabled cards, hopes that the technology will take off as quickly as previous high-speed Ethernet standards have. At the end of the last decade, people started piloting 1gbps Ethernet, and datacentre deployment was robust in 2000, he says.
"By 2001, there were no data-centre servers that did not have an adapter. By the time we reached 2003, 1gbps was shipping in notebooks." There is no reason why iWarp shouldn't follow the same course, Maule predicts, hoping for ubiquity within five years.
As datacentres are forced to shift increasing volumes of information between clustered servers and storage devices, and as interoperability testing between iWarp suppliers appears to be reaching some sort of pivot point, we may only have to wait 12 to 18 months to find out.