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Maker of unconventional desktops calls it quits

Orion says its ideas were good, and sales were getting better, but other circumstances were not.

Orion Multisystems, which marketed workstations with up to 96 processors, has closed its doors.

The company had actually been experiencing increasing sales, according to founder and CEO Colin Hunter in an interview. The company, however, ran out of money. As a result, Orion executed an arrangement, for the benefit of creditors, to sell its intellectual property and assets.

"We hit a tree on takeoff. We didn't plow into the ground," he said.

Despite the company's demise, Hunter says he still has high hopes for the idea behind it. The company tried to provide desktops with the power of clustering--the technique used to weave one- and two-processor servers together into a large supercomputer. The 96-processor system measured 27-inches high and came with 192GB of memory. It also cost $100,000. Smaller versions came with 12 processors.

Not everyone needs this sort of computing power, but animators at movie studios and scientists at pharmaceutical research laboratories often do. Lawrence Livermore Laboratories installed machines from Orion.

The hardware market is a tough place for start-ups to survive. RLX Technologies first came up with the idea of building blade servers with energy-efficient chips. The company crashed and subsequently was bought by Hewlett-Packard, but blade servers are now a growing market. A slew of server appliance manufacturers lived short lives back from 1998 to 2000, but the concept lived on.

Hunter said he hopes to form another entity that can license some of Orion's intellectual property.

Like RLX, Orion used Transmeta chips, which have never been popular with corporate IT buyers. Hunter was a founder of Transmeta. Orion, though, had been looking at ways to build their computers with other chips.