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IBM Adds Super-Fast Networking Capabilities to the Cloud

The networking technology InfiniBand will appeal to customers looking to move large collections of data at blistering speeds.

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Taking a page from the book of supercomputing, IBM will today announce the addition of a super-fast networking technology called InfiniBand to its SoftLayer cloud computing service.

As an industrial strength connection technology intended to create a super-fast connection between computers running in a data center, InfiniBand has the ability to move at speeds as fast as 56 gigabits per second. That’s fast enough to transfer the contents of a library of 30,000 Blu-ray discs in 24 hours. The technology is widely used in high-performance computing environments and has been used in 222 of the systems on the latest Top 500 list of the world’s most powerful supercomputers.

Marc Jones, VP for innovation at IBM’s SoftLayer unit, says the technology appeals to customers in certain industries where moving unusually large collections of data at a high rate of speed is useful, and is unique in the cloud services business. “It’s a product that we really don’t think has been brought to the cloud yet,” he said.

Well, not entirely unique. There is at least one other cloud player using InfiniBand: Cambridge, Mass.-based ProfitBricks offers InfiniBand to its customers.

Most cloud computing customers use the technology to replace more mainstream computing infrastructure they would otherwise have to buy and maintain themselves. In most cases, cloud services are geared to appeal to the widest range of customers. InfiniBand is a more exotic technology that appeals more widely to certain specialized use cases like banking and finance, scientific computing and drug discovery. But Jones said certain SoftLayer customers have expressed an interest in moving some of their most demanding computing workloads to the cloud.

One customer in particular — Jones wouldn’t name it — in the oil and gas industry is said to be interested. “Were seeing a lot of interest in moving more complex work loads to our cloud, and our customers want more powerful infrastructure,” he said.

In industries like oil and gas exploration, companies have to analyze enormous troves of seismic data in the search for resources, and they want to do it quickly. That makes them one of the world’s most demanding customers for high-performance computing. Another potential set of customers is in the TV and film industry, he said, where the demand for heavy-duty computing power used for rendering and transcoding video are also huge and expensive.

It’s the latest move by IBM, which spent $2 billion to acquire SoftLayer last year, to boost its cloud computing services. The combined cloud services and software business is on track to bring in $7 billion in revenue this year, the company said during an earnings conference call last week, up from $4.4 billion last year.

IBM has been increasingly seeking to compete with Amazon Web Services, which boasts a significantly larger computing footprint, but at an estimated $5 billion is thought to be smaller by revenue. (As I’ve noted before, it’s a tricky comparison.)

Big Blue’s current strategy involves divesting itself of much of its traditional computing hardware business in favor of software, services and cloud computing, which tend to carry higher profit margins than hardware.

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