I/O, I/O IT's Off To The Future We Go

The Next Generation Vs. The Future Alliance

Advancements in distributed applications have exposed weaknesses in traditional I/Ostandards. The industry now realizes that PCI can only go so far. PCI is a bus-basedstandard that forces all I/O processes to share the same bus with a bandwidth of 500MB persecond.

KNOW YOUR LIMITS

The soon to emerge evolutionary standard, PCI-X, will push that limit to 1GB persecond, using the same form factor and bus architecture as PCI.

The realization of that limit has led to the formation of two separate and competingorganizations that both want to push I/O standards forward. The Next Generation I/O Forum(NGIO) was formed primarily by Intel, Sun Microsystems, Dell and Hitachi. Next came theFuture I/O Alliance formed by HP, IBM, Compaq, 3Com and Adaptec.

"They're fundamentally trying to solve the same issues," says James Gruener,managing director of Windows 2000 platforms at Aberdeen Group (Boston, Mass.). "Thebig difference will be in their implementations."

Both organizations are promoting a decentralized approach to I/O where one unit will bepredominantly CPUs and another an I/O unit. A switched-fabric architecture will connectthe two boxes. "The battle comes down to who controls the box," says Gruener. Aswitched-based, point-to-point architecture will require manufacturers and ISVs toincorporate different form factors and software models into their products.

"It's a revolutionary step to get revolutionary benefits," says Scott Emo, atechnical marketing manager at HP, speaking for the Future I/O Alliance. "We expectto offer two thousand MB per second to start with and it's designed to double andquadruple that."

BYE BYE PCI

"PCI is not going to meet the need of enterprise class server requirements,"says Charles Andres of Sun Microsystems, acting as marketing communications manager forthe NGIO. "Because of the latency and slow error detection inherent in PCI, PCI-Xwon't meet those needs either." Andres adds that NGIO's initial specification shouldprovide 2.5GB per second per channel and will be designed for multiple channels.

"In five to 10 years we'll see requirements in the one terabyte per second range.We want to make it scalable ­ start at low cost and ramp up as requirements demandit," he adds.

"You have no standards when there are two standards. If I was a customer today, Iwould sit and wait," says Gruener. As to the possible industry repercussions ofcompeting standards, Gruener sees the additional costs of maintaining two differentR&D efforts translating into "significant additional end-user cost overtime."

RAGING BULL

Rick Lacroix, public relation program manager at storage vendor EMC says there is aprecedent for a wait-and-see attitude. "Back two years ago when the SSA [SerialStorage Architecture] Fibre channel argument was raging, we said 'Whatever our customerswant is what we're going to deliver.' I think that's the same type of attitude that we'regoing to have on these types of future I/O discussions.

We're working with all the organizations, taking a look at the technical requirementsand issues and we'll see what the market's going to go to."

The principals agree. "We think it's appropriate to find common ground to ... finda high speed interconnect structure," says Andres. "It's obviously much betterfor the industry to standardize on one."

"Of course there's a benefit in coming together," says Emo. "Onestandard is better at the end of the day."

As to what expertise each group brings to the effort, Gruener says, "Theattraction of Intel is that they provide a standardized environment that iscommodity-based. Multiple vendors can co-exist on the same network. And the NGIO has theadvantage in being the first to market. But that doesn't mean it will be the better of thetwo products."

Andres adds that Sun's involvement with the NGIO began with the corporate opinion thatthe industry "should standardize on a serial fabric architecture [for I/O] and theNGIO's specification seemed to be farther along."

As to the Future I/O Alliance, Gruener says, "IBM has done switched fabric before,HP has plenty of enterprise experience and Compaq has the R&D money. [They] are allgreat assets to have."

NO BIGGIE

The NGIO expects to see products based on its standards sometime in 2000, the FutureI/O Alliance probably a year later. "We expect to have a full spec by year-end 1999and prototype products throughout 2000," says Emo. Commenting on trailing NGIO's moreaggressive timeline, he adds, "Standards last 10 to 15 years. Six months differenceis not a big deal to customers."

The NGIO spec is "out for final review now," says Andres, adding that theplans are to have the final specification around mid-year. "Companies should showproof of concept product rollouts by mid-year. Our goal is to have products bymid-2000."

A SPEC UNDER THE MICROSCOPE

At a May 24 press event, the Future I/O announced that Cisco Systems has joined theforum as its sixth promoter, that a pre-release specification was ready for partner reviewand that it was broadening its specification to allow Future I/O packets to encapsulateInternet Protocol version 6 (IPv6) packets.

"We gave people a heads-up and to let them make some comments," says WilliamLee, a technical marketing manager for HP. "We wanted to get them ready for thevoting process in the Fall." The voting process takes place as the group nears theexpected final release of v1.0 of the specification in December 1999.

Lee characterized the inclusion of Cisco as "very valuable," because it ownsapproximately an 80% share of the router market. Cisco's support also eases the group'sinclusion of IPv6 technology into its specification.

Lee points to several benefits the group hopes to realize from the inclusion of IPv6.First, it provides 128-bit addressing, "which allows us to virtually addressunlimited nodes. A [Future I/O] network can be huge." Second, it provides an"auto-config aspect," that lets a new node, once inserted onto the network,auto-define a unique address for itself and broadcast it to other nodes on the network."It's a hot plug-and-play concept."

Third, with IPv6, routers can sense when a connection fails and can reroute traffic tobypass the failing device. "It makes the network more secure and available."