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10GbE chip delivers up to 8Gbps of iSCSI traffic

Posted: 27 Jul 2007     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:10GbE chips  10G Ethernet  TCP offload engines 

A handful of Intel's former competitors in the chipset business are at it again, this time in the market for 10GbE chips. ServerEngines, founded by the people behind former chip set company ServerWorks, is rolling out a 10G Ethernet device that will vie for sockets with a part introduced recently by the x86 giant.

The BladeEngine chip from the 185-person startup is garnering significant praise from analysts for its performance, power, cost and features. However, it is one of a handful of products dueling with Intel about how best to address the market for 10G Ethernet.

Intuitive solution
Like many startups, ServerEngines takes an approach of handling most of the work on the Ethernet controller using hardware accelerators called TCP offload engines (TOEs). Intel is taking a very different approach, called I/O Acceleration Technology (I/OAT), putting unique features in its multicore processors, chipsets and own Ethernet chips that provide some of the TOE performance at a lower cost.

Sun Microsystems has an approach roughly similar to Intel's but leveraging its own multicore Sparc CPUs.

One analyst said both techniques may succeed in different markets. The TOE approach may be best suited for storage applications that use relatively long packets, while the Intel and Sun techniques may fare best on Web servers and mainstream applications that use smaller packets.

ServerEngines is driving the storage angle hard by building deep HW/SW support into its chip for iSCSI, an Internet Protocol version of the SCSI interface widely used for storage. The startup acquired Gbit-class iSCSI technology including a 45-person software team from Adaptec in March 2005.

The company's BladeEngine includes dual 10- and 1GbE media access controllers (MACs) as well as hardware to accelerate both TCP for networking and UDP for iSCSI storage. ServerEngines has demonstrated a working version of the chip delivering up to 8Gbps of iSCSI traffic in each direction on a card that will sell for as little as Rs.20,405.36 ($500) in volume to OEMs.

"Considering the overhead for iSCSI, that's awesome," said Nathan Brookwood, principal of market watcher Insight64 who has seen the demo. "I don't know anyone who is getting that level of performance," he added.

Over the past five years, a number of startups have pursued iSCSI in an effort to supplant the entrenched market for running storage traffic over relatively expensive Fibre Channel networks. However, to date most of those startups have died or been acquired and the market for iSCSI has not panned out due to the fact most of the chips cost too much and delivered too little.

"The iSCSI performance has not been competitive with Fibre Channel to date. If anything will put iSCSI on the map, it's this new combination of performance and price from ServerEngines," said Brookwood.

"The maturity of their iSCSI solution impressed me," said Bob Wheeler, senior analyst with market watcher The Linley Group. "They have had hardware for some time and been quietly working on the software," he added.

Target customers
ServerEngines will sell its chips on small adapter cards for servers as a link to external 10G nets. It also aims the part for use inside server blades to run networking, clustering and storage traffic inside a chassis that has separate adapter cards for server processors and hard disk drive storage.

By running all the processor and storage traffic over one internal network, OEMs can save the costs of supporting multiple boxes and networks such as the relatively pricey and power hungry Fibre Channel, said Kim Brown, VP of business development for the startup.

"We are talking with IBM and other vendors about going with this kind of a system. We think once someone crosses over they will all go for it," said Brown.

Data centre vendors often talk about running multiple kinds of traffic over a single type of network, but so far the concept has not been proven in the market. The blade server "is one place where the fabric convergence story makes a lot of sense," said Wheeler.

"There is some merit to that concept," agreed Brookwood. However he noted most server blade systems still put individual drives on each server card because that's what end users request.

"IT guys still want to be able to boot each card locally, so it's almost more of a psychological issue than a technical one," Brookwood said.

Second-generation part on the way
The BladeEngine part is not without its shortcomings, many of which the company hopes to mend in a second-generation device that could sample before the end of the year.

To get full 40Gbps throughput from its two 10G MACs, the company will migrate the design from the 2.5GHz to the 5GHz version of PCIe. At the same time it will also upgrade its internal IPSec block from 2.5Gbps, which is suitable for security on boot-up operations, to a full 10Gbps capability to handle security on all traffic.

In addition, ServerEngines plans to add congestion management features to its next design. These are seen as key for a future version of Ethernet that will handle the Fibre Channel protocol.

The chip now supports 2.5Gbps serial links via Xaui and CX4 interfaces, but it may be able to build in support in the next round for the KR standard of serial 10Gbps links for backplane traffic. The existing chip will mate with external KR Serdes chips to provide serial 10Gbps links to anyone who needs them today.

Wheeler said only Chelsio Communications, another 10G startup, beats ServerEngines in performance today. But the Chelsio part requires external memory that the BladeEngine does not need.

The ServerEngine chip draws 7W average and 10W maximum. It has a latency of less than 10µs. The device is sampling now and will be in production later this year.

The startup is still working on software to support the remote direct memory access features originally developed for Infiniband and now ported to Ethernet to reduce latency. The RDMA code will be available later this year.

In addition, ServerEngines has built in support for running 32 virtual sessions simultaneously with parallel interfaces for storage and networking. The company is working on software that will let users dynamically allocate the chip's resources as needed depending on software workloads.

ServerEngines was founded in 2003 by CEO Raju Vegesna and chief technical officer Sujith Arramreddy. The duo held similar roles in ServerWorks, which developed several generations of successful chipsets for PC servers and was eventually acquired by Broadcom Corp.

Thanks to a fat paycheck from the Broadcom acquisition the founders were able to fund ServerEngines themselves without taking venture capital. About 20 of the employees from the current startup were from the original ServerWorks crew, Brown said.

- Rick Merritt
EE Times




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