Intel Plans Big NVMe/TCP Lightbits Storage Push – Blocks and Files

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An IT Press Tour briefing by Lightbits Labs in San Jose told us some good things about Lightbits’ technology, but a large invisible presence began to become more visible throughout the field as it progressed. Several clues, when combined, indicate that Intel is going to push its partners to sell NVMe/TCP-accessed storage servers powered by Lightbits software and featuring Intel hardware.

Let’s detail the different indices, then build the coherent image that we see being made from these pointers.

First, Intel is funding Lightbits. Intel Capital was the sole contributor to a September 2020 funding round according to Crunchbase, with the amount kept secret. At the time, we wrote, “Lightbits Labs is working with Intel to make its NVMe/TCP all-flash arrays nearly as fast as RoCE and InfiniBand options, which require much more expensive cabling.

Lightbits provides software-defined shared block storage from clusters of x86 servers equipped with NVMe SSDs and accessed over standard Ethernet using the NVMe/TCP protocol. This has longer latency than NVMe over RoCE which requires more expensive lossless Ethernet. Its software can extend the endurance of QLC SSD up to 20 times, which helps make flash data storage more affordable compared to disk.

Second, an Intel executive, Gary McCulley, presented during our briefing. He is the director of the Data Platform Group, in Intel’s data storage technology business. It was nice to hear that, but Lightbits executives could have told us about Intel and Lightbits working together.

McCulley showed an image of a server with Lightbits software using various Intel components:

  • Gen 2 Xeon SP processors (IceLake);
  • Pmem 200 Optane memory cards;
  • 800 series Ethernet network card.

There was a slide for each of them, followed by a summary slide stating that Lightbits with Intel technology offers “large-scale storage for everyone”. It’s certainly fine for Intel to support a startup using its kit, but why go the extra mile?

McCulley told me after the briefing that Intel had 50 employees, many of them engineers, working full-time on the Lightbits partnership. It made me sit up. It’s a lot of people, working on what exactly? We assume that we make sure Intel components and Lightbits software work well together. But then again, why go the extra mile for this particular Intel partner?

Third, Intel’s IPU (data processing unit for accelerating east-west traffic in a data center) can be used by customers accessing a Lightbits storage cluster. They use an extended CSI plug-in.

Fourth, Lightbits announced the TCO Calculator and Configurator tools developed in collaboration with Intel. They provide cloud service providers (CSPs), financial services, and telecommunications organizations with an intuitive way to determine the value of the Lightbits cloud data platform. The tools highlight the total cost of ownership savings that can be achieved by using Lightbits software with Intel hardware.

Fifth, Lightbits recruited two channel sales managers. In April, he named Charla Bunton-Johnson as vice president of global alliances and distribution. We were then told that a key focus would be working with Intel on Xeon Scalable processors, Optane persistent memory (PMem), and 800 series Ethernet network adapters.

Andrew Engledow joined Lightbits in May as Director of EMEA Sales. He said Intel was instrumental in helping British telecommunications company BT buy a Lightbits storage system.

Sixth, we also learned that the Lightbits partnership with Intel includes Intel’s sales organization.

These six pointers are enough to make us wonder: Why does Intel care so much about this Lightbits technology? Does it plan to build and sell (storage) servers to large-scale buyers, such as telecom operators such as BT, or allow server and storage vendors to do so?

We think it’s the latter. Intel will use its server and storage hardware partners to sell Lightbits storage clusters using Intel Xeon, Optane, and Ethernet network cards, with optional Solidigm SSDs, as well as Intel’s IPU, at large-scale (but not necessarily hyperscale) buyers in the CSP, financial services and telecommunications markets.

This is our prediction. It gives Intel an answer to Fungible (DPU, NVMe/TCP, storage servers) and other DPU vendors. And it could allow Intel’s partners to move a bed of Intel-powered enclosures, leading to substantial revenue growth for Lightbits.

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