On the Block: SiCortex's DeLorean-Style Green Supercomputer

high_capability_system_sc5832SiCortex, a company that makes a green supercomputer using proprietary chips and some “Back to the Future” styling, is seeking to sell its assets by the end of June. (Check out what’s for sale here.) According to a story at HPCwire, SiCortex was seeking a third round of financing (it finalized a $37 million round last September), but one of its five venture backers pulled out. I called SiCortex CEO Chris Stone to get more information, but have not heard back.

Reportedly, the 5-year-old company was doing well, but in these hard economic times, it’s possible that a cash-strapped investor just couldn’t front SiCortex the money to continue. EETimes reported a similar capital crunch leading to the closure of video processing chip firm Ambric last November. However, there may be an industry trend working against SiCortex as well. In general, supercomputers have moved from being proprietary systems to open systems built using commodity hardware and open-source software. Supercomputers are now defined by their jobs, not their hardware. While processors such as IBM’s Cell (s ibm) chip and Nvidia’s (s nvda) graphics chips are being used to augment the x86 CPUs in some HPC systems, for the most part, specialty chips are a dying breed. For example, earlier this year, SGI, which made proprietary machines for the HPC industry, filed for bankruptcy and sold its assets to Rackable Systems (which has changed its name to SGI). So I wonder, is SiCortex’s lack of money a sign of a venture capital problem or a supercomputing industry problem?

John West over at insideHPC, tells me that he thinks the large upfront investment in SiCortex’s hardware that it needed to recoup was what ended up hurting it. He emailed that the company had sold 80 machines since launching its computers in 2007, and had a sales pipeline “tens of millions of dollars deep,” but wasn’t profitable. So it simply may have run out of cash.  In that case, its failure may be a sign of both the venture industry’s reluctance to invest in capital-intensive businesses, and the difficulties facing a specialty hardware company today.

Below I’ve embedded an old video interview featuring the SiCortex personal supercomputer. Unfortunately, I didn’t show its main product, which features a rack of machines that can be accessed through a DeLorean-style door that lifts up, rather than opens out. That, and the low power consumption, are pretty neat.