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Summary:

Even as times get tough for pioneering startups building semiconductors and computing equipment, the chip industry needs to maintain its biodiversity, says Matt Reilly, a co-founder of the recently shuttered SiCortex. I wrote yesterday about the green supercomputing company selling its assets, and Reilly left an […]

blogimageEven as times get tough for pioneering startups building semiconductors and computing equipment, the chip industry needs to maintain its biodiversity, says Matt Reilly, a co-founder of the recently shuttered SiCortex. I wrote yesterday about the green supercomputing company selling its assets, and Reilly left an excellent comment taking me to task for calling the silicon that powers the SiCortex computer proprietary simply because it didn’t use x86 architecture. I considered that the beginning of a dialogue, and indeed, Reilly graciously agreed to talk about SiCortex’s history and his perspective on trends in the computing world.

Reilly explained that since the underlying architecture SiCortex used was a common MIPS-based one tweaked to optimize communication between the processor cores themselves and the processor cores and the memory, it wasn’t proprietary. Given that it was a specially designed chip, I begged to differ, but he is correct in his assertion that assuming anything that isn’t an x86 chip is proprietary is wrong.

When I write about corporate data centers and consumer PCs, I dub anything that isn’t an x86 chip as a specialty chip for computing. Reilly rightly pointed out that, by categorizing chips this way I basically acknowledged only Intel (and to a lesser extent, AMD and Via Technology), which helps create a monoculture for chips. Intel’s all for this monoculture, by the way — that’s why it’s building an x86 GPU and an x86 chip for cell phones. What he didn’t point out was how that argument also involves a pretty narrow definition of computing. Since I write about netbooks with ARM-based chips, using DSPs to build things like a low-power supercomputer at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, and computers taking advantage of GPUs or architectures like IBM’s Cell for parallel computing jobs, I should really know better.

While obviously disappointed that the company he helped build and create is now on the block, Reilly tried not to dwell on the what-ifs, instead noting that SiCortex managed to build an entirely new system for faster and greener supercomputing with a relatively small team. They designed a lot of new features — from the chip architecture to the design of their box — with about 80 people, a lot of help from the open-source community and $68 million. That’s not bad, especially in light of some of the amounts raised by chip startups in the late 90s. And even a failed startup can make a mark. “You can do really interesting things with a small team today,” Reilly said. “No one was talking about green computing back in 2002 and 2003 and now it’s a big deal. And we helped set the target for that.”

SiCortex is a reminder that small players can still go up against the big guys. They may not always win, but that doesn’t mean they can’t steer the conversation.

  1. Erin in Rowayton Friday, May 29, 2009

    Alex Guinness said in the Lavender Hill Mob “It’s so nonsensical that it must make sense”, but I’m finding the dissolution of SiCortex hard to understand. Please help me understand the economic reality. For example, are clusters using new versions of Xeon and Opteron chips making competitive life too difficult??? SiCortex’s grand challenge and great people seemed on the cusp of success with a group ofsolid VCs? Please clarify. Thanks, Erin

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    1. One of their investors was really low on funds and couldn’t participate in the latest round of funding that SiCortex needed. Then all the other investors pulled out of the round, too. SiCortex’s sales were strong and growing, but hadn’t reached profitability yet, so without the round of funding they couldn’t go forward. It really had nothing to do with competition.

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  2. [...] themselves and the processor cores and the memory, it wasn’t proprietary. Given that it … Read Full Post: SiCortex Co-Founder on Intel and Shutting Down – Gigaom.com Related Info:SiCortex Co-Founder on Intel and Shutting Down – CNN MoneySiCortex is shutting down – [...]

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  3. You and I had part of this same conversation Stacey, but I disagree with Matt that his system wasn’t a proprietary design. Yes, it was based on the very common MIPS core, but the system on a chip they constructed was custom, and this was part of their selling point. The engineering that went into that chip contributed to expenses that someone who builds a system around a non-proprietary core just doesn’t have. Matt’s right in that this leads to little diversity in the computing gene pool, and that isn’t a good thing, but that doesn’t make his system non-proprietary.

    Someone in HPC marketing left an interesting comment on the article on my site to the effect that SiCortex couldn’t market itself to “save its life”. Here’s part of what they said: “Their story never resonated – their value proposition was weak and off target – and the perceived ego of the company was somewhat out of control – and got in the way of good, solid marketing.”

    I’m not an HPC marketing guy, but this does resonate with me as an HPC customer.

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  4. Stacey, I should have made clear that the first generation product cost way less than $68million — I think the background noise in my office must have confused things — The company built the first round system with the A round funding of $21M. We had working prototypes at that point. The company then raised an additional $21M B round to finance production and sales activities. There was a later extension to the B round and some debt financing as well. The key point is that the SiCortex team built the V1 product for way less than some dot com startups spend (spent?) on launching a website.

    But then again, it isn’t like we were inventing the concept of selling dog food by mail… ;)

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  5. Chuck Ritter Monday, June 1, 2009

    Erin asks if “Xeon and Opteron chips making competitive life too difficult”…

    Well, if not x86 itself, the price and availability of Infiniband for commodity x86 definitely changed since 2002. It is much, much cheaper. Also, Electricity price gyrations have smoothed… Big market players have competed more aggressively for the HPC business… Things have changed.

    That said, I’m still a little surprised by the closure. Maybe someone will still step in and make a go of it. Someone with not only the marketing department, but the reputation it takes to sell to big systems: IBM, Hitachi, Fujitsi, etc. If SGI and Sun have value, SiCortex should find a home.

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  6. It appears Linux Fund is currently preparing to bid on Sicortex’s PathScale software. They are accepting donations towards the bid at: http://linuxfund.org/pathscale/

    More information at:
    http://www.codestrom.com/wandering/2009/06/help-liberate-proprietary-code.html

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