Hippi races at 50 gigabits per second

Feb 1st, 1996

Hippi races at 50 gigabits per second

Ben harrison

Capable of delivering more than 50 gigabits per second, an all-fiber-optic high-performance parallel interface, or Hippi, serial local area network switch interconnects personal computers, workstations and servers to operate as part of high-speed networks. This switch from Albuquerque, NM-based Essential Communications offers 64 ports, each of which supports a full-duplex serial Hippi connection and provides data transfer simultaneously in each direction at 800 megabits per second.

The Hippi protocol provides one of the fastest implementations--93 megabytes per second in many installations--of transmission control protocol/Internet protocol, or TCP/IP, networking. Hippi may not be as well known as other fiber-optic technologies, but it can deliver networking capabilities that are three times faster than Fibre Channel and six times faster than the OC-3c rate of 133 Mbits/sec.

According to Bill Boas, president and chief executive of Essential Communications, "Today`s networking requirements call for highly scalable, easy-to-manage technology." He says the company`s ESS-64 switch provides speed, expanded management features and low per-port cost.

He notes the company`s switch debunks the myth that Hippi is old and expensive. The switch supports American National Standards Institute, or ANSI, Hippi and TCP/IP (Request for Comments, or RFC, 1374) standards and includes Address Resolution Protocol (RFC 826).

Evolving Hippi standards

Commenting on evolving Hippi standards issues, Boas says his company and other members of the Hippi Networking Forum are anticipating the emergence of Hippi 6400, a follow-on ANSI standard capable of scaling to 6.4 Gbits/sec. The Melbourne, FL-based forum is a consortium of vendors and users interested in high-bandwidth networking with Hippi. Its members include equipment manufacturers, military systems suppliers, research laboratories, component vendors and academic institutions.

According to Stephen Montgomery, vice president and chief operating officer of Electronicast Corp., a research consultancy in San Mateo, CA, "Fiber-optic communications extend Hippi to reach 10 kilometers, as opposed to 25 meters over copper twisted-pair [cable]."

Montgomery says Hippi technology is aimed primarily at high-performance supercomputer systems. Simulations by these systems generate huge data files. Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, NM, was instrumental in pushing Hippi into networking. He recalls that the first Hippi equipment was available in 1988 and is now the leading high-speed link. Since applications are mainly in supercomputer systems, production quantities are low, and prices are correspondingly high.

However, Montgomery cautions that "Hippi may be displaced by the year 2000 by asynchronous transfer mode, or ATM, Fibre Channel and parallel optical interconnect." Hippi can be used with a synchronous optical network, or Sonet, system to interconnect transcontinental supercomputing distributed-computing systems. This has been demonstrated by the Los Alamos National Laboratory and other supercomputing laboratories as part of the U.S. government-supported gigabit testbed program.

Next-generation Hippi

Boas says that some standards progress had been achieved. "Proposals for next-generation Hippi with rates of 6400 Mbits/sec were received from Silicon Graphics, which proposed Hippi-6400 or `Superhippi.` Cray Research proposed Gigaring. The Hippi working group of the X3T11 ANSI committee will be working on a standard based on the Hippi-6400 proposal."

He also notes that, at Supercomm `95 held in California last December, a Hippi serial network was available and working and that there was little evidence of Fibre Channel technology. "Interestingly, the ATM network was taken offline because of technical difficulties," Boas says. "And I am not talking about a supercomputer ATM network; I am referring to low-speed, basic-vanilla ATM technology," he adds.

He says his company`s Hippi switch is helping to expand the use of Hippi technology beyond cluster computing to create high-performance local area networks. He cites an example of data "mining or prospecting." According to Boas, "One major credit card company translates its credit card transactions to consumer marketing organizations. "This means that these organizations can target their current customers for additional products."

Boas claims his company`s Hippi switch has features not found in other high-performance switching products. Among them are Hunt Groups, which are a superset of alternate-path routing that creates multiple paths among switches and nodes, allowing them to share the traffic load automatically. Another feature permits switches and workstations to be automatically configured on the network, thus allowing "plug-and-play networking."

Assessing the impact of the Essential Hippi switch, Don Tolmie, technical coordinator at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, says, "This switch has more ports than any other Hippi switch to date.

"Large switches are often more cost-effective than multiple small switches and also avoid the blocking problems associated with interconnecting multiple smaller switches. As Hippi installations expand the number of interconnected devices, then larger switches are a natural product," Tolmie says. He believes Hippi technology is alive and well, and claims that reports of Hippi`s passing have been greatly exaggerated.

Hippi-switch deployment

Boas agrees with Tolmie, citing several organizations that have recently deployed the company`s Hippi switches to help solve networking problems--the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, Digital Domain and Pacific Title Digital.

Hippi networking has become an integral part of the Los Alamos National Laboratory`s supercomputer installations. Two separate Hippi networks are operating at Los Alamos--one for open computing and the other for secure networking. Between the two networks, there are eight Cray supercomputers, two CM-200s, one CM-5 and numerous high-end workstations. While three sites at Los Alamos use the two networks today, Hippi is slated to coexist with the laboratory`s fiber distributed data interface, or FDDI, backbone, handling file transfers among the mass-storage node, the supercomputers and user workstations.

At the National Center for Supercomputing Applications on the campus of the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, network requirements are "as fast you can get," according to Von Welch, a senior network engineer. He notes that applications that produce high-resolution images in the center`s visualization lab involve a three- dimensional immersion chamber that allows scientists and engineers to "walk through" their research. Such an application would be impractical with any technology other than Hippi.

At Digital Domain in Santa Monica, CA, Hippi is the company`s "technology of choice" to link servers and supercomputers in a network capable of handling the vast amount of digital data contained in the sound, photography and animation that comprise a single shot. For example, outer-space scenes created for the Apollo 13 movie have produced complex and large image files. Using Hippi technology, designers and animators were able to transfer files quickly and easily between workstations. The company`s goal is to extend Hippi to the desktop, giving designers and animators Hippi-speed access.

Mike Smith, a communications analyst at Datapro Information Services Group in Delran, NJ, says, "Essential Communications needs to confront the same issues facing every equipment vendor making high-performance networking devices. The path to significant revenues for these vendors requires that their products provide two fundamental capabilities to customers: high performance and manageability.

"As the marketplace has revealed, having one without the other is insufficient in meeting customer needs. The high-performance/comprehensive network management model can be applied to a number of different niches in the networking equipment marketplace, but it is particularly relevant to high-performance systems such as ATM and Hippi switches," Smith says. q

More in Optical Tech