Sun's quick move into support for enhanced Ethernet chips and boards, called R-NICs, raises questions about the relative roles of Infiniband and Ethernet as system-to-system interconnects in the data center. Sun has long backed the Infiniband interconnect.
Sun is working with both S2io and Intel Corp. on a new TCP/IP stack for its next-generation operating system, Solaris X, said Sunay Tripathi, chief architect for FireEngine, the company's new Ethernet stack. The software will let network adapters handle TCP termination and RDMA functions, speeding network traffic and easing work loads on processors that are mainly in two- and four-way X86-based servers.
Sun is working with the two chip makers to ensure their accelerators will hand over TCP processing to the Solaris kernel if the chips become swamped, avoiding system hangups. Once the trio sorts out issues of the accelerator/kernel interface, Sun plans to open up Solaris X to any chip or board maker with TCP offload and RDMA functions.
"Customers have told us they don't want to deal with flaky hardware that could mean the system stops working. So this is what we have to do before we can ship," said Tripathi.
The issues could be sorted out in the next few months, potentially putting Sun's Solaris X on track to enable R-NICs before Microsoft Corp. hits the market with a similar version of its Windows Server operating system.
R-NIC shift At the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference in May, Microsoft said it would beta-test a version of Windows Server this year that enables TCP offload and ship the OS in 2005. But it remained mum on when it would enable the RDMA features that enhance throughput and reduce memory bottlenecks for high-speed networking.
Technology managers in and outside Sun say the direction is shifting toward R-NICs. Others say, however, that there is no change in what have been long-standing plans for Infiniband in computer clusters, blade servers and shared-storage and I/O systems.
The debate surrounding Sun is indicative of the larger uncertainty in the industry about the market opportunities for several interconnect technologies coming down the pike.
"Infiniband was interesting to us five years back, but it hasn't panned out the way people thought and now 10G Ethernet prices are dropping significantly," said Tripathi.
Sun's views on interconnects have "changed pretty dramatically even from their public positioning of just a few quarters ago," said Dave Zabrowski, president and CEO of S2io. "They are becoming the first major server vendor to publicly commit to an R-NIC product."
Zabrowski said the return of Sun founder Andy Bechtolshiem may have rekindled Sun's enthusiasm for Ethernet in the data center. Bechtolshiem rejoined Sun early this year after a tenure at Cisco Systems Inc. following Cisco's acquisition of his Ethernet switch startup, Granite Systems.
However, another senior Sun executive, who asked not to be named, said the Solaris work does not imply any change in Sun's commitment to Infiniband or related product plans.
In addition, the executive said he doesn't expect R-NICs to be ready for broad deployment until early 2006. And he added that Bechtolshiem has strongly backed Sun's plans for Infiniband.
Zabrowski said S2io won't detail its plans for a 10-Gigabit R-NIC until October. The company faces a host of large and small competitors, including Intel and as many as a half-dozen startups, all with slightly different architectural ideas (see www.eetimes.com/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=21700045).
"Our goal is to be the leader. Every server and storage vendor is planning an RDMA-based product," said Zabrowski.
S2io believes it will have an edge in delivering R-NICs using its existing 10-Gbit Ethernet technology in use in servers by Silicon Graphics Inc. since May. Competitors such as Broadcom Corp., which have existing 1-Gbit R-NICs, will not be able to scale to the greater bandwidth because they lack the ASIC state machine architecture that S2io uses, Zabrowski said.