Who cares about cache coherent distributed shared memory, or ccNUMA architecture? Not, apparently, as many users or vendors as clustering specialist Dolphin Interconnect Solutions Inc had hoped. So Dolphin is now concentrating its efforts on the further development of its more conventional clustering technologies, which are already widely supported on Unix, and are set to become a volume business with the introduction of Microsoft Corp Wolfpack and Novell Inc Wolf Mountain clustering software. Dolphin says ccNUMA, which enables distributed nodes to share what is effectively a single virtual pot of RAM, simply isn’t as widely supported as all the hype might have suggested it would be, and hasn’t captured much mindshare to speak of. What there is will be adequately serviced by the likes of Sequent Computer Systems Inc, Data General Corp, Silicon Graphics Corp and Siemens Nixdorf Pyramid.
Although it’s made no public announcement, Dolphin has been shipping its controversial SCI-to-PCI clustering system to beta sites for some time now, and expects both existing customers such as Sun Microsystems Inc, and companies deploying the latest Microsoft and Novell clustering software to beat a path to its door. The system, which comes as two add-in cards, cabling and drivers, is Dolphin’s first PCI bus product, as well as its first experience with Windows NT. There has been some debate in the industry over the utility of SCI, the IEEE’s Scalable Coherent Interface, in the NT space. However, Dolphin says it has stripped out the tainted cache coherency work that was the main cause of the problem, and is now just using the network transport layer for message-passing. Dolphin’s newly appointed president Peter Schnorr, the company’s former vice president of engineering, says it can currently support two-node and four-node Pentium Pro systems, a single node being at maximum a four-processor machine. It’s got drivers for Santa Cruz Operation Inc UnixWare on the way, and expects the interconnect to become its bread and butter business. Sun is dependent on Dolphin for its Sbus-based clustering, and will use the SCI-to-PCI work as it gradually swaps out the Sbus for PCI in its processor and system designs.
The work is Dolphin’s third generation product after it gave up on its own full system development some years ago. SCI works in both shared memory (ccNUMA) and non-cache coherent environments. The first-generation, chip-level SCI work as sold to Data General Corp for use in its ccNUMA AViiON servers, which are supposed to debut shortly. Data General did much of the board-level configuration itself and wrote its own UnixWare drivers. The Sbus adapters Dolphin created for clustering Sun Sparc servers is second generation work, and currently its largest revenue stream. The SCI-to-PCI solution is third-generation technology and competes directly with Tandem Computers Inc’s ServerNet clustering scheme, though Dolphin claims ServerNet can’t pass messages or map memory like it can. To get to ccNUMA however, an extra chip is added to the boards (which strips them of their PCI capability), and they’re attached to a system’s processor memory bus. This will never be an off-the-shelf item, Dolphin says, as ccNUMA requires extensive custom configuration. In addition to Sun, Dolphin claims to be in negotiation with two other Unix vendors to use the SCI-to-PCI interconnect. Don’t be surprised if one of them turns out to be Siemens Nixdorf Pyramid, for which Dolphin has already created custom input-output and storage expansion technology. Although Gigabit Ethernet is regarded primarily as a high-speed network and storage mechanism, in fact it can do all of the same things as the Dolphin and Tandem interconnects. However, given its focus, Dolphin expects Gigabit Ethernet systems to take out the low-end of the market, leaving Dolphin and Tandem the more specialised configurations. Dolphin, of course, doubts if ServerNet will offer enough of a performance advantage over Gigabit Et
hernet to justify the difference in price.
Dolphin, now based in Westlake Village, California, but originally an Oslo, Norway-based concern, says its technology is independent of either Microsoft’s Wolfpack clustering model or the new Virtual Interface Architecture initiative aimed at standardiZing the high-speed communications interfaces for server and workstation clusters (CI No 3,142). Dolphin has early access to both Wolfpack and The Virtual Interface work. Initially, it will use Oracle Corp’s Parallel Server database, one of the few programs currently capable of making use of the underlying hardware. The product will work on any Pentium Pro box. In OEM customer quantities, the Dolphin’s card will cost around $950, and with switches will run about $2,000 a connection – comparable to prices at rivals Tandem. Gigabit Ethernet works out somewhat more expensive, running about $2,000 per port, says Dolphin, and that’s just for the switch. Dolphin, of course, is also the company that helped Novell build its huge Wolf Mountain networking scheme, the one that was meant to grind Microsoft into dust. Key Wolf Mountain developers, however, have recently defected from Novell to set up a shop of their own and built a Wolf Mountain-like network for NT (CI No 3,149), leaving Wolf Mountain unfinished and both sides in court. Dolphin, which is backed by the same venture capital firm as the Novell defectors, would like to keep its relationship with Novell going, and is waiting for the smoke to clear.