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PLX readies its PCIe fabric, expands role of technology

Posted: 19 Sep 2012 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:PCI Express?

PLX Technology has been in the process of developing a variant of its PCI Express switches, which will act as a fabric for a variety of servers and network appliances. The effort is part of several proposals which intend to expand the reach and role of PCIe.

A PCIe fabric has been long desired by server designers at Facebook. This fabric will be used as the basis of future processor cards which will ease the task of performing upgrades on CPUs in the several racks of Facebook's large data centers. Currently, the company uses server cards that include relatively expensive 10 Gbit/second Ethernet links.

Amir Michael, a senior hardware designer at facebook, stated that the company's goal is to only use PCIe in the rack so we can refresh every component on its own natural life cycle.

"I believe [a PCIe fabric] is one of the next big frontiers for servers," Michael said. "It has a lot of benefits, but also some technology challenges because PCIe was not designed for that and there are no long distance, cost-effective PCIe components now." he added.

PLX hopes to fill the gap with a chip and software it currently has in development with unnamed partners. It includes "standards-compliant extensions to its switches" and is aimed at data-center and high-performance computing servers as well as network appliances such as dedicated storage systems, said a PLX representative.

The PLX approach will offer twice the throughput of 10G Ethernet with slightly lower CPU utilization. PLX is working with standards groups to get its approach adopted.

Sources at two server makers said the PLX effort is one of several similar proposals in the industry. However, none are actively under consideration at the PCI Special Interest Group, said one senior I/O engineer who asked not to be named.

"Perhaps for some purpose-built applications, [PLX] will find an interesting market, but for the volume space of cloud and enterprise data centers, the world is dominated by Ethernet," the engineer said. "With the rise of processors with integrated Ethernet NICs across multiple design points, the technical challenges may be the least to overcome," he said.

"Convincing customers to implement two fabrics, two management domains, and etc., will be a challenge," the engineer said.

He noted Infiniband has faced similar challenges and thus "still remains a niche for purpose-built environments." In addition, Intel scrapped several years ago its Advanced Switching initiative that tried to create a version of PCIe acting as a broad clustering and network fabric, he added.

Intel recently said it is developing a clustering interconnect it will put on its future server processors, borrowing techniques from many technologies including Ethernet, it said. Separately, archrival Advanced Micro Devices is promoting the Freedom Fabric acquired with startup SeaMicro.

- Rick Merritt
??EE Times





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