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Linux powers unusual multicore machine

Start-up uses 16-core MIPS processor originally designed for networking gear to take a crack at Linux server market.

A start-up called Movidis believes a 16-core chip originally designed for networking gear will be a ticket to success in the Linux server market.

Movidis is announcing two new servers using the chip in conjunction with next week's LinuxWorld Conference and Expo in San Francisco. The Revolution x16 models each use a single 500MHz or 600MHz Cavium Networks Octeon CN3860 chip, said Ken Goldsholl, the company's co-founder and chief technology officer.

Movidis server

Sixteen cores is a lot compared with current processors, and multiple cores boost servers by farming different tasks to different parts of the chip. Sun Microsystems' UltraSparc T1 "Niagara" chip has eight cores, while mainstream x86 chips from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices will move from today's dual-core designs to quad-core models within the next year.

But Movidis systems have a major difference from mainstream servers: Their chips use MIPS processor cores, an architecture originally designed by Silicon Graphics. MIPS chips can't run software for major server processors of the x86, Sparc, Power or Itanium ilk.

"I do believe people will take a chance with a different architecture to get other things they need," Goldsholl said.

Another company that tried MIPS servers, Cobalt Networks, dropped the design in favor of x86 chips, and SGI is moving to Intel processors.

With open-source software, though, new versions can be compiled for the chip, and the version of Debian Linux that Cavium supplies with the chip works with the Revolution x16 servers with only minor modifications, Goldsholl said. The company also includes higher-level software such as the Apache Web server and the MySQL and PostgreSQL databases, and supports it all.

Costs for the system range from $3,000 for a 1.75-inch think model with no drives to $12,000 for the 3.5-inch model with the maximum of eight drives, he said.

The Octeon chips consume only 30 watts of power. The overall systems have networking acceleration, eight gigabit Ethernet ports, and hardware-based encryption abilities.

Like Sun's X4500 "Thumper" system, Movidis' products had their genesis as a video-streaming server. But "it was very hard to break into video-on-demand," Goldsholl said. Cable TV companies were "very reluctant to buy from a brand-new small company." He thinks he'll get farther with the general-purpose server market.