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Start-up hopes to speed databases

One-year-old NextGig has a 44-person staff working on a hardware device that will alleviate the "database bottleneck."

Karl C. "Casey" Powell, who founded high-end server maker Sequent Computer Systems and sold it to IBM 16 years later for $810 million, has re-emerged at the helm of a start-up that hopes to unclog an expensive bottleneck in corporate computing.

In 1983 Powell founded Sequent, which made high-end servers used to run big jobs such as Cisco Systems' sales operation. The company eventually employed as many as 3,000 workers. But the server market was consolidating to a few top-tier companies, leaving Sequent behind, and Powell sold his company to Big Blue in 1999.

Powell is now chief executive of NextGig, a San Diego, Calif.-based start-up whose first product is designed to speed up corporate databases. These information repositories, which hold everything from inventory to payroll data, must be housed on servers with dozens of CPUs (central processing units), and price tags that can easily exceed a million dollars.

NextGig, celebrating its first anniversary Friday, has a 44-person staff working on a special-purpose 3.5-inch thick hardware device that will speed the requests for information stored in the database, said Cary Jardin, NextGig's founder, chief technology officer and former CEO.

"There is a tremendous need for alleviation of the database bottleneck. We approached it from the networking perspective," Jardin said.

The NextGig device sits between the database and those who ping the repository with requests for information. It stores the database's most frequently accessed info, bringing it closer to those who need it. And, using that information, it also anticipates what info is most likely to be requested next and stores that data too.

The NextGig device also stores data and retrieves it in a carefully planned way that speeds up queries for the information--for example, by storing one item of information next to another after noticing that the two are often requested in succession.

The system requires no change to the back-end database, Jardin said.

The company persuaded lead investor ComVentures and Doll Capital Management to part with $15.5 million to fund the company, Jardin said.

Ten times better?
The performance increase is "substantial," Jardin said. "It's at least an order of magnitude. We are going to be delivering a pricing model that will knock (corporate customers) between the eyes on the value proposition."

Improving database performance would let companies get more work out of their existing servers or use less expensive machines. It could also mean savings on software licenses. Oracle's market-leading database software is sold according to how many CPUs are in the server on which it runs.

But some remain doubtful that there's a simple cure for an expensive problem such as database access.

"That would be earthshattering...(a tenfold improvement) would be utterly revolutionary, but I'm skeptical of that," said Gartner analyst Jon Rubin. And some others with plans for radical improvements to databases--TimesTen, for example, whose products let databases be stored in memory instead of in slower hard drives--have failed to transform the industry, Rubin said.

"There's not much traction for peripheral technologies to improve database performance," Rubin said. "Most of the opportunity is to do it inside the database engine itself."

Jardin and Sequent are familiar with such criticisms but point to their track record as evidence of NextGig's potential.

At Sequent, Powell's designs were at first derided as academic curiosities, but they eventually came to win industry respect. And Jardin also pointed to his last company, IPivot, which created the idea of the SSL accelerator, a hardware device that unburdens servers by speeding up e-commerce transactions encrypted with the secure sockets layer (SSL) standard. Jardin founded IPivot and served as its chief technology officer.

Intel acquired the company in 1999 for $500 million, though it was for a different product, which balanced workloads across different servers. After the acquisition, Jardin became CTO of Intel's Network Equipment Division.

Confident and ambitious
Powell is confident that NextGig has a strong idea. His analysis of the company showed it has the potential to be an institution in the technology landscape, not merely a niche player that's acquired by a tech giant.

Alt text goes here "What investors want to see now are companies that are built into institutions," Powell said. "It's pretty clear that the days of building a company--with all due respect to Ipivot--(and) getting $500 million in two years are probably behind us."

Powell never was able to garner more than a billion dollars in revenue in a year for Sequent, but believes he can meet that goal with NextGig.

"I need that last fix. I need a billion-dollar company," Powell said.

The database-acceleration system is only the first product from the company. NextGig also promises other ways to improve databases: products that can keep databases available despite computer failures and that can replicate copies of databases at different sites.

Test versions of the accelerator, called the DA400, are due in June, Powell said, with plans to ramp up production by the end of 2002.

One problem the company does acknowledge is in marketing. NextGig's products aren't really for network administrators or for database administrators; they fall somewhere in between.

"There aren't people to sell to now," Powell said. "We don't sell to a database administrator or to a network administrator. We need two people in the room."

Ultimately, the company expects a new class will arrive: the database network administrator, who will grasp the problem.

The system is designed for conservative buyers. For one thing, one system can take over for another that fails, and as many as four can be stacked up together to improve performance and to assure availability. For another, if a box fails, data is still transmitted through it on direct wires to ensure the database still works, even if the main database server now must handle the full load.

"If the box explodes, copper touches copper and the packets just go to the server," Jardin said.

The product is much more than just an intelligent caching device that stores often-used data for faster access than the database can provide. InfoCruiser has begun selling such a device.

Some companies have database caching products, Powell said, but "what we're doing is much, much faster."

The NextGig product initially will work with Oracle databases, the company said, but NextGig hopes to expand. Powell hopes the alliance between Sequent and Oracle will give NextGig a leg up, but the company doesn't plan to approach Oracle until the product is closer to completion.