Convey and its VC backers bet on hybrid servers

By , Computerworld |  Data Center

PORTLAND, Ore. - High tech startup companies today are most likely to be software application vendors or social networking sites. One wouldn't expect a new hardware vendor to attract significant venture capital.

Nonetheless, Convey Computer Corp. managed to secure a $24 million round of venture capital funding in July, while researchers were reporting that server sales were plunging . The company, formed in 2006, has received nearly $40 million in funding so far.

This Richardson, Texas-based company makes a server that uses a combination of x86 Xeon processors and field programmable gate arrays as co-processors (FPGA). The co-processors require some programming to run specific programs, such as those used in financial analytics and life sciences.

Convey says its systems make FPGAs relatively transparent to users by giving them what it calls a "personality" -- an extension of the x86 instruction set optimized for specific workloads. By using FPGAs instead of general purpose CPUs, the company claims it can dramatically improve price and performance numbers.

Convey launched its first hybrid-core one year ago this month at the SC08 supercomputing conference. It's back at SC09 here this week, where Intel CTO Justin Rattner kicked it off with a warning that spending on high performance computing will flatline unless it comes up with a killer application. His suggestion: The broader use of 3D.

Bruce Toal, the CEO and president of Convex, missed Rattner's speech and is anything but pessimistic about the HPC business. He contends that startups like his can get venture capital more easily today than in the past by better leveraging x86 processors and open source code for compilers and operating systems. Creating a hardware now company "is a less capital intensive thing" now, he said.

The company claims a combination of FPGAs and Xeon CPUs (Intel's venture capital firm is a backer), can replace eight CPU-server racks with one of its racks, which would require just under 10% of the power consumption.

Hybrid systems that use graphical processing units, FPGA and other approaches, are widely seen as becoming increasingly important because of power demands, especially those of x86 CPUs, but it remains uncertain just when the big users will turn to them.

William Barth, director of high performance computing at the Texas Advanced Computing Center, which runs the world's ninth largest system according to the Top500 list, and said the company has talked to center about its technology.

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