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September 25, 2012

Intel Fabrics Could Put the Squeeze On Mellanox

Michael Feldman

It’s been a good year for interconnect-maker Mellanox. The company has been riding high in 2012, thanks in large part to its dominant position in the InfiniBand marketplace and the surge in FDR (fourteen data rate) sales over the last several months. As a result, the company’s revenue and stock has soared to all time highs. But with Intel now eyeing the lucrative high performance interconnect market, Mellanox may soon face a formidable challenge as InfiniBand kingpin.

Intel, as you’ll remember, plunked down $125 million in January to buy QLogic’s InfiniBand business. The acquisition was part of a larger strategy to build up a stable of high performance interconnect technology, which also included Cray’s supercomputing fabric and Fulcrum’s Ethernet switch ASICs. QLogic was always a minority player in the InfiniBand space next to Mellanox and, thus far, Intel’s ownership of the technology has not changed that dynamic.

Mellanox’s dominance of the InfiniBand space has been accelerating of late, underscored by the lack of an FDR solution from QLogic. Although FDR was on the company’s roadmap a year ago, Intel has not made any moves suggesting they would ever deliver products based on the faster technology. It’s quite possible that the chipmaker will skip FDR entirely and go straight to EDR, the next iteration of InfiniBand that promises twice the bandwidth — 104 Gbps in 4 lanes.

Ironically, Intel has been Mellanox’s best friend lately. The Romley platform, with the latest “Sandy Bridge Xeon CPUs, provides built-in support of PCIe Gen3, which delivers the necessary bandwidth to accommodate FDR speeds. It was the deployment of Sandy Bridge-based HPC machinery over the last several months that Mellanox was able to parlay into a couple of record-breaking quarters of sales. And its stock, which average around $20 per share for the most of the company’s existence, is now hovering above the $100 mark.

Intel, though, is playing the long game here. Recently they laid out a strategy in which they would integrate the interconnect interface logic (essentially the network interface card, or NIC) onto the CPU. The chipmaker intends to implement this new model across all x86 chips intended for datacenter duty, everything from web servers to supercomputers. Placing a fabric controller on the processor would bring the interconnect pipes much closer to the compute engines, increasing energy-efficiency, performance and scalability. It would also reduce system cost by removing the need for a discrete NIC.

With Ethernet, InfiniBand and Cray’s interconnect IP under one roof, Intel has the capability to support an array of on-chip fabrics. Although the consummation of a interconnect-processor marriage for any of these technologies is probably at least a few years away, it has the potential to reshape the landscape of the networking/interconnect market. Potentially, every NIC-maker would be threatened by such a development, inasmuch as it would make discrete network cards obsolete.

But there’s one vendor that is most likely to affected first and more deeply — Mellanox. Given its dominant position in the InfiniBand NIC market, the company would could be directly threatened by a successful CPU-InfiniBand fabric integration. And since QLogic TrueScale logic glued to a Xeon would seem like a natural implementation for an initial product, Mellanox could be forced to defend its turf on a rather uneven playing field.

If Mellanox wanted to counter Intel head-on, it could partner with another processor vendor — say, for example, AMD — and license its fabric logic for on-chip integration. There’s no indication that Mellanox is considering such a strategy. In fact, in speaking with the company, there are no plans in place — at least no public ones — to mirror Intel’s on-chip integration model.

According to Gilad Shainer, vice president of market development at Mellanox, they’re laser focused on their product roadmap, which at this point only involves discrete network adapter cards. That’s understandable given the success they’ve been enjoying as the sole source of FDR InfiniBand, and their plans to maintain that exclusivity with EDR InfiniBand in 2014. “Mellanox is not a company that reacts to things,” Shainer told HPCwire. “It’s a company that drives things.”

Shainer also pointed out that fabric integration is not without its drawbacks. For example, CPU and interconnect roadmaps are not really that well-aligned. A given CPU platform could pass through multiple generations of network adapter cards. Once you’ve hardwired the interconnect to the processor, you’ve lost the flexibility that a discrete card could deliver.

Some of the loss in flexibility could be made up by clever design. The on-chip fabric logic could be architected to support multiple interconnect configurations or even multiple protocols — for example, Ethernet and InfiniBand, as Mellanox itself does with its ConnectX discrete adapters and Virtual Protocol Interconnect (VPI) technology. Intel hasn’t revealed, or more likely hasn’t decided, the nature of its first fabric integration products. But such flexibility issues are likely to be at the forefront of any designs.

One thing that both Intel and Mellanox seem to agree on is that interconnects will be playing a much more central role in computing in the years ahead. Whether you’re talking about hyperscale datacenters or exascale supercomputers, the fabric connecting the computing and storage components will be integral into the workings of these machines. Whether that turns out to be an on-chip integrated solution or not remains to be seen.


Related Articles:

Intel Weaves Strategy To Put Interconnect Fabrics On Chip

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