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Azul leads wave of proprietary server startups

Posted: 30 Sep 2004 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:azul systems? microprocessor? java? dram?

Azul Systems Inc. debuted last week (Sept. 24) its concept of a data center appliance to process Java bytecodes. The company is part of a new wave of computer server startups spawned by perceived shortcomings in the Intel X86 as a microprocessor for tomorrow's business applications.

Backers claim Azul is one of the largest and riskiest of several bets on proprietary architectures to accelerate emerging data types. Some market watchers give the startups slim chances of eking out more than a niche in a market increasingly dominated by commodity PC servers.

Azul plans to ship by June a network appliance that offloads processing of Java bytecodes from application servers using a proprietary 64-bit microprocessor that packs 24 specialized cores per die. The systems include up to 256GB of DRAM and 16 processors in a symmetric multiprocessing arrangement linked to server farms via four Gbit Ethernet ports.

The company won't have benchmarks for several weeks, but chief executive Stephen DeWitt claimed the systems will handle the equivalent Java processing of 10 to 30 conventional servers. A change in a Java virtual machine path variable redirects bytecodes to the appliance without disturbing processing on other Windows, Linux or Solaris applications running on the host.

The x86 is more attuned to C and Cobol code than the Java applications that now represent up to 15 percent of today's data center jobs, opening the door to Azul, according to DeWitt. Market watcher Gartner estimates virtual-machine environments such as Java will represent 80 percent of data center applications by the end of 2008.

"The workloads are shifting. This is one example of a number of instances where the x86 is running out of gas in the server world," said Basil Horangic, a partner at Austin Ventures that has invested in Azul and other server startups.

"I am very skeptical," said market watcher Nathan Brookwood of Insight64. "The last time anyone built a Java processor for enterprise computing they lost big time," he said, referring to the MAJC chip from Sun Microsystems that was eventually relegated to use as a graphics processor.

"The network and database software stacks are not in Java so to run the Java middleware you also have to run the enterprise legacy underwear," Brookwood said.

DeWitt countered that existing servers will continue to handle Windows, Linux and Solaris apps, but can offload the Java work to Azul's new systems.

"I am skeptical of their business model," said Brookwood. "This is an era of specialization. Systems suppliers who try to develop their own chips get stuck in a narrow niche," he added.

The five venture firms that have invested something less than $100 million total in Azul's three funding rounds hope otherwise. "There is a lot of money in [Azul]. They represent a big opportunity, but a big risk too," said Horangic of Austin Ventures.

Several other startups with proprietary server architectures are in the works, he added. "I definitely see a lot more interest in computer startups. I expect next year you will see many more computer companies at this conference," said Horangic, speaking at the DataCenter Ventures conference in Redwood City, CA last week (Sept 22).

Among the new wave of startups is Conformative Systems that is developing a network appliance to accelerate XML software with a proprietary ASIC built up from multiple specialized cores. The company, led by former IBM server engineer John Derrick, has raised $11 million to date in hopes it can displace HP, IBM and Sun servers for specialized workloads.

Forrest Baskett, a venture capitalist with New Enterprise Associates and former SGI chief technologist, rolled his eyes at the Conformative plan after it was presented at the conference here. Only a small fraction of today's software is based on XML, he said.

A more common approach to data center startups is to deploy proprietary management, security or storage software in an appliance that is basically an X86 server.

"I call it tin-wrapped software. Users like them because they are simple to deploy, but after awhile they wind up with two many different boxes in their data center and no central way to manage them all," Baskett said.

Nevertheless at least two other server startups are developing database systems using proprietary hardware, said Horangic.

- Rick Merritt

EE Times

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