Mellanox: What does faster Ethernet mean?

Big data might be a massive buzz term at present but server interconnect - or the ‘pipes’ that make the successful transmission of data possible - rarely gets as much airtime as the pretty graphs, skills needed, or even the data itself. This is partly because this type of ‘plumbing’ is all quite technical and behind the scenes and partly because it is something marketers are less keen to wax lyrical about.

Yet this area can make a huge difference to speed in the data centre. It can have a fundamental impact on the watchability of streamed multi-media and is crucial in areas like real-time fraud detection, deep machine learning and the kind of cutting edge medical research where large volumes of data are needed instantly. It is in this arena which Mellanox has carved a niche for itself.  

The two key networking protocols that Mellanox is involved in are Infiniband – with which it has been especially associated – and Ethernet. Infiniband is superfast, has extremely low latency and is predominantly used in high performance computing – Mellanox announced a big partnership with IBM SoftLayer last Summer – and it is an area NASA is particularly interested in. While Ethernet is industry standard – Peter ffoulkes, research director at 451 Research, describes it as “the ‘lingua franca’ for general purpose networking” – and is used by the overwhelming majority. Now determined to up its game in the Ethernet space, Mellanox is looking to make it faster, for everyone.

Ironically, this comes exactly one year after Ashraf Eassa wrote a piece in Motley Fool postulating that Broadcom – the biggest vendor in the Ethernet controllers market - might acquire Mellanox. This never seemed likely, based on previous comments from CEO and co-founder Eyal Waldman, but the argument he raised was that Mellanox was both a competitor in the Ethernet space, and more importantly, Broadcom would want to gain its high-end Infiniband business.

Nothing could be further from the way things have developed. Avago released plans to buy Broadcom for an enormous $37 billion earlier in the year. While today Mellanox announced two new products which strengthen its own position in Ethernet. These comprise of a new network adapter - ConnectX-4 Lx - to facilitate faster computing. And a new 100 Gigabit switch – Spectrum - which is Open Ethernet, so non-proprietary, and claims to end packet loss in order to maximise performance.

The company is keen to stress that this will make it easy for data centres to effortlessly increase speed and migrate upwards to accommodate more data. In practice it says those who were currently using 10 Gigabit will move to up 25, those who use 40  will move to 50, those who were using 60 will move up to 100.

Waldman foresees this trend as ongoing. “We will continue to grow,” he tells us. “There is no limit – we can go wider and faster.” The company already has “visibility” on a 200 Gigabit switch, he adds, and anticipates incremental speed increases released every two or three years. 

The aim of these announcements appear to be two-fold. Firstly, to place Mellanox firmly ahead of its competitors in terms of speed and efficiency. And secondly, by actively promoting Open Ethernet, it should solidify Mellanox’s own position as a specialist which does not lock clients into a full package. This is important because in the Infiniband sphere its main competitor, Intel, is opting for precisely the opposite strategy, and looking to achieve vendor lock in with its Omni Scale Fabric.

So, what does all this mean in practice?

There’s no denying that data is increasing exponentially and at every level computing capabilities are racing to keep up. There is also no avoiding the fact this is likely to have a knock-on impact at every level of society, from throw away entertainment, to major health breakthroughs.

One part of this is interconnect. And despite high profile competitors Mellanox has managed to lead in the superfast space. This is no mean feat and if it can continue to maintain this distance – “a generation ahead” according to Waldman – increasing its visibility in the Ethernet market will only prove an advantage.


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