Alteon Networks Inc, a start-up whose first birthday is in May, thinks it could be first to market with Gigabit Ethernet hardware next month. It is initially building hardware and supporting software that will only work on PCI-based NT systems. Support for IBM Corp’s AIX Unix and Sun Microsystems Inc’s Solaris on SBus servers will be added in May. The San Jose, California company is taking a systems approach to the new high-speed Ethernet standard rather than simply swapping out conventional 10-100 Mb per second Ethernet cards for faster ones. It says its system is going to offload tasks now handled by server central processor and thus increase server performance by 20% to 40%. Alteon vice-president of marketing and product management Delina Lo says she has counted 39 other gigabit Ethernet start-ups working crazily in a race to market, but none of them are said to be taking the systems approach. She also says Alteon got a head start because its core design team are engineers who worked together on networking supercomputers at the erstwhile Ultra Network Technologies Inc, giving them key experience in high-speed networking.
Full of Bay Network refugees
Alteon’s executive talent is heavy on refugees from Bay Networks Inc. We had the knowledge to do gigabit networking. The challenge was to bring it to Ethernet, says chief executive Dominic Orr, formerly Bay Networks’ senior vice-president for LAN switch, hub and network management. Alteon co-founder Mark Bryers, also chief technology officer and vice-president of engineering, is the Ultra link. He was in engineering there until he left to found his own consultancy. Engineers at the nascent Alteon, which has its public launch this week, began working on their designs in January 1996. They were designing on napkins in a restaurant, laughs Lo. The work was enough to impress Matrix Partners and Sutter Hill Ventures, who put up almost $5m in first-round financing to launch Alteon – and buy the engineers some real drafting paper. What the Alteon team has come up with is a series of NIC network interface cards and gigabit switches that meet the current D1 draft of the IEEE 802.3z Gigabit Ethernet standard. The AceSwitches are built around 11 ASICs that have R4000-type RISC cores that give them server-type intelligence, offloading tasks previously done by servers. AceSwitches will come configured either as the model 110 with a pair of Gigabit Ethernet ports and eight 100MHz fast Ethernet ports, or as the model 160 with six gigabit ports and a pair of fast Ethernet ports. The AceSwitches connect to a single AceNIC in the server via fiber optic cable – IEEE gigabit standards for copper aren’t finalized yet. The architecture eliminates the multiple cards typically used in servers on large networks. AceSwitches are connected together, eliminating anything like an FDDI ring between servers to build a high-speed network backbone. Alteon’s design uses 9K frames for server-to-server communications, which is the size of a standard Network File System datagram. Bigger frames mean fewer input-output interrupts to the server, another performance enhancing technique from Alteon. The company believes the technique should pay off in clustered systems, eliminating a potential bottleneck when applications are partitioned among multiple servers. Alteon’s technology and performance comes at a price. The AceSwitch 110 will come in at $9,000 compared to the $900 to $1,000 it typically costs for fast Ethernet switches. AceNICs will be $1,500, compared to $100 or so for standard Ethernet cards. The company feels the cost will be lost in the noise compared to the $100,000 for the servers that Gigabit Ethernet initially goes in. Lesser servers simply can’t process data fast enough to keep up with a gigabit data stream.