Azul's first-generation Java servers go on sale

Customers considering company's idea of running Java programs on specialized machines can now factor price into deliberations. Photos: Java power in a pool

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Stephen Shankland
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Beginning Monday, customers considering Azul Systems' idea of running Java programs on specialized, centralized machines will be able to factor price into their deliberations.

The Mountain View, Calif.-based start-up will begin taking orders for four models of its Compute Appliance product line. A top-end 3840 model, with 384 separate processing engines and 256GB of memory, costs $799,000.

That's a lot of money, but Chief Marketing Officer Shahin Khan believes the price is worth it because each system can replace numerous low-end servers running Java software for tasks such as e-commerce transactions. Azul argues that adding a centralized pool of Java processing power means servers are more efficiently used, easily managed and quickly expanded.

Click for photos of Azul's Java appliances But the price will likely lead to cautious customers, said Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff. "Those are sizable investments for a company to make. Even if you accept, for purposes of argument, that Azul effectively replaces a large number of servers that cost a lot more in the aggregate, certainly Azul is in the position where they're going to have to have some very strong proof in order to sell those kinds of systems."

There are lower-cost models, too. A model 3840 with 128GB of memory costs $499,000; a lower-end Compute Appliance 1920 with 192 processing engines costs $199,000; and the 96-engine model 960 for evaluation purposes costs $89,000. And the company will let prospective customers try the products free for 45 days, he added.

The machines will ship later this quarter, Khan said, and they're initially expected to appeal to customers in server-intensive markets such as financial services, telecommunications and retail. "We are almost necessarily focused on the larger customers at the moment," Khan said.

The company has about 140 employees, of whom 25 are in Bangalore, India.

Network attached processing
Although the company promises the systems will run Java programs faster than conventional multipurpose servers do, Khan said acceleration isn't the reason to buy the company's products. Instead, the idea is to provide a central pool of computing power that numerous systems can draw on--an idea the company calls network attached processing.

Servers running Java software often are sandwiched between two other classes of servers--"front-end" machines that dish up Web pages and "back-end" database machines that house all the data. The Java machines, called application servers, are in charge of retrieving information from the database, processing and packaging it, then handing it off to the Web server to be sent out across the Internet.

Azul's systems don't replace any elements of this "three-tier" architecture. Rather, they do the grunt work of the application servers, letting each one handle more traffic. The Azul systems are grafted onto the network, requiring a one-line change in the Java configuration files that redirects work from a conventional application server such as IBM's WebSphere to Azul's Java engine.

Azul will ship its systems with management software that lets customers guarantee resources to high-priority tasks--a key feature if different departments are going to share the same machines.

Azul's Java technology passes Sun Microsystems' Java tests, Khan said. The systems later will be certified to work with three prevailing versions of Java for servers--IBM's WebSphere, BEA Systems' WebLogic and the open-source JBoss package.

And to provide global support--a difficult task for a small start-up--Azul signed a partnership with IBM Global Services to help with service, spare parts, training and installation.

Azul's control software, called Compute Pool Manager, can set priorities, monitor performance to assure that service levels are met, and log usage so different users can be billed appropriately.

Future directions
Azul's systems today help run Java software, but support for Microsoft's parallel technology, .Net, is planned. "That's not a 2005 phenomenon. We envision it for the future," Khan said. "We have been talking to Microsoft, and it's part of the process. We do require technical collaboration."

In addition, some other server software languages, including Python and PHP, could benefit, he said.

Azul's Vega processors combine 24 engines, called cores, onto a single slice of silicon. A second-generation processor is under active development with more processing cores and a higher clock frequency, Khan said.

The next step for Azul will be to show that its products will appeal to more than a narrow niche, Haff said.

"The issue isn't so much being able to have a server system company start-up," Haff said. "The issue is achieving any kind of scale with it."