Intel lights up enterprise optical transceiver

Intel Corp. Tuesday moved to slash the cost of integrating 10-gigabit Ethernet into servers and storage devices by unveiling a 10Gbps transceiver designed for the standard PCI interface.

The transceiver, which can be used as the optical component of a network interface card (NIC) or as a network device such as a switch, is based on the XPak specification, which allows for a smaller transceiver than had been used previously in 10Gig E interfaces. Unlike transceivers designed using the XenPak specification introduced earlier, XPak transceivers can be integrated into NICs that plug into the slots in typical computing hardware. The XPak transceiver also is about half the cost of a XenPak part and consumes one-third as much power, according to Intel.

In addition to 10Gig E, a version will be available for the 10Gbps version of Fibre Channel, the networking technology most commonly used in storage networks.

Uses of 10Gig E mostly have been limited to equipment for service-provider networks and enterprise backbones, where the size and cost of XenPak have not been a major problem, said Sean Lavey, an IDC analyst in Mountain View, Calif. The smaller transceivers may help to get 10Gig E into data centres.

“What Intel is hoping for is XPak really becoming a 10-gigabit card for these high-end servers and storage systems…XPak is the first step in allowing it to head that way,” Lavey said.

Intel’s LAN Access Division, which in May demonstrated a XenPak-based NIC, believes it will help 10Gig E penetrate the enterprise data centre, according to Caroline Larson, a product marketing official in that division. The primary benefit of XPak for servers will be NICs with a smaller form factor and lower power consumption, she said.

The bandwidth limitations of existing data buses, such as PCI and PCI-X, mean companies haven’t been able to take advantage of network connections faster than gigabit Ethernet or 1Gbps Fibre Channel. Emerging faster bus technologies such as PCI-X 2.0 and Infiniband will remove the bottleneck between the NIC and the server or storage device.

A PCI-X 2.0 dual data rate bus, which probably will become available in the second half of 2003, will transfer about 2GB/sec., or about 16Gbps, according to Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at consulting company Insight 64, in Saratoga, Calif. “That’s a pretty good match for 10-gigabit Ethernet,” Brookwood said.

XPak was established through an open agreement among Intel, Infineon Technologies AG, and Picolight Inc. and published in May. It is intended specifically for enterprise networks. The specification works only with multimode fibre, the short-range type used in most enterprises.

XenPak can work with multimode as well as with single-mode fiber, which can handle distances as long as 40km but is more expensive to buy and install. Single-mode is not necessary in most enterprise applications, said Allan Armstrong, an analyst at RHK Inc., in South San Francisco.

For network equipment makers, XPak paves the way for switches and other devices that pack more ports into a given size box, Armstrong added.

Storage area networks (SANs), which link several storage devices in their own high-speed network via a specialized switch, today are dominated by Fibre Channel, according to Lavey. Ethernet is less expensive to buy and set up, but lacks the on-time delivery guarantees available with Fibre Channel. The big increase in Ethernet speed from 1Gbps to 10Gbps may change the equation, he said.

“Maybe you can overcome these problems by throwing more bandwidth at the solution,” Lavey said.

However, change comes slowly in the storage business, he added. For example, although Fibre Channel is now available in 2Gbps and 10Gbps versions, most deployments still use the 1Gbps version. The SAN market is dominated by a few vendors, especially Brocade Communications Systems Inc. and McData Corp., according to Lavey.

“It’s going to take a while for them to migrate to 10Gbps unless the Brocades of the world feel a threat of these other technologies, (to) where they have to push ahead to 10-gigabit,” he said.

In addition, bandwidth demand hasn’t reached 10Gbps in most enterprises, Lavey added. One user’s perspective bore that out.

“We wouldn’t need anything like that for a while,” said Aaron Webb, an IS director in Missoula, Mont., at gaming hardware and software vendor International Game Technology. The company is planning to set up a 1Gbps Fibre Channel SAN at the Missoula facility, which has about 200 employees, to consolidate file storage and back up its data more quickly. Webb estimated that 10-gigabit storage connectivity won’t be necessary for three to five years.

The Intel TXN17201/9 XPak Optical Transceiver is available in sample quantities now and will be generally available to original equipment manufacturers in January 2003, for a volume price of US$500 each.