Startup promises unlimited computing power

A handful of former Nortel executives have launched a company they claim combines telecommunications-class networking with high-performance computing to create a nearly unlimited pool of server resources that can grow and shrink in response to application demands.

Called Liquid Computing, the company is making a modular server system that uses a high-bandwidth fibre interconnect to let users shift workloads and reconfigure systems on demand. The company is targeting the system at high-performance computing customers in areas such as biosciences and government. It is expected to be generally available next year.

The system is made up of a 36.75-inch-high chassis that holds 20 modules - each consisting of four dual-core AMD Opteron processors, memory and I/O - that plug into a common midplane. Multiple chassis can be tied together via fibre-optics cables, and the initial release will scale to 12 chassis, or 960 processors, Liquid Computing CEO, Brian Hurley, said.

The interconnect is Liquid Computing's key feature. It is a combination of commodity components and proprietary devices that enable it to have latency of "less than 2 microseconds from processor to processor" and throughput of up to 6Gbps over fibre-optic lines, Hurley said. He stressed that the proprietary nature of the interconnect is transparent to applications.

"With a simple software command, we can configure the processors to look like a bunch of two-ways, a bunch of four-ways, a bunch of eight-ways - with any combination of memory and I/O that's required by the application at that point in time," Hurley said. While the company was targeting the HPC market initially, he said the technology would also be useful in enterprise data centers.

"We are really doing for computing what SAN and NAS have done for storage in context of allowing an aggregation of resources that gives you economies of scale relative to manageability, high availability services and flexibility in how the resources are used," Hurley said.

While the debut systems will be built on Opteron processors, Hurley said it was really processor agnostic. Intel Xeon processors could also be used, for example. Analysts compared the idea with today's blade servers but said it takes things a step further.

"They are including things such as broadband connectivity as well as a little bit more advanced networking capabilities than your run-of-the-mill server blade," research manager of infrastructure hardware at IDC, Alan Freedman, said.

The challenge for Liquid Computing would be convincing customers that what they were offering was better than grid or server clustering products that major systems vendors such as IBM, HP, Sun and SGI offer today, analysts said.

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