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Start-up aims for flexible server design

Liquid Computing lands $14 million in funding to develop a high-speed server touted as both adaptable and easily expandable.

A start-up called Liquid Computing has secured $14 million in venture funding to design a flexible server based on Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron processor and the Linux operating system.

The company, with roots in the telecommunications and mainstream-server industries, has a design it hopes to sell initially to high-performance computing customers, such as research scientists, beginning in 2006. Later, it hopes that the design's flexibility and expandability will appeal to mainstream business-computing customers as well, Chief Executive Brian Hurley said.

Liquid Computing announced its series A financing from a consortium that includes VenGrowth Capital Partners, ATA Ventures, Export Development Canada, the Business Development Bank of Canada and Axis Capital. It's one of several start-ups emerging during a more sober entrepreneurial era.

The company, based in Ottawa, has an office in Los Altos, Calif. Its product is a system called the STL-20X4. At 36.75 inches tall, it is half the height of the standard-size rack into which it fits. At its center are 20 electronics boards, called compute modules, that plug into a mid-plane, or common communications, channel.

Each module has four AMD Opteron processors, dual-core models that combine two processing engines on each piece of silicon, Hurley said. AMD processors also were at the heart of start-ups Kealia, acquired by Sun Microsystems in 2004, and OctigaBay, acquired by Cray in 2004.

Crucial to the server's design is technology that lets the four-chip modules be attached to form large multiprocessor servers or be kept separate for smaller tasks that operate simultaneously. The design will enable new resources to be assigned to overtaxed applications while allowing the server to sidestep hardware failures, the company said.

A system with 16 processors will be comparable in price to four conventional four-processor servers that have 10-gigabit Ethernet network adapters, Hurley said.

In addition, multiple systems can be yoked together with fiber-optic communication lines into even larger systems, Hurley said. The company envisions a four-server machine, called the STL-80X4, with as many as 320 Opteron processors, and the STL-240X4, with as many as many as 960 processors.

The design can expand from "four processors to thousands of processors--it's unlimited, to be frank," Hurley said. That expandability is possible because of short communication delays between processors: less than 2 microseconds across a fiber-optic link and "much less" within an individual chassis, he said.

The system runs conventional, unmodified software for x86 processors such as Intel's Xeon and AMD's Opteron. Although initial designs use Opteron, accommodating Xeon is easy, Hurley said.

The company has 26 employees but plans to increase beyond 60 by the end of 2005 through sales and engineering hiring. Alpha test systems are in customers' hands today, with beta testing expected early in 2006 and production sales expected later that year.

Hurley and Chief Technology Officer Mike Kemp previously worked at telecommunications specialist Nortel Networks. Coming from the traditional server industry are Bob Garrow, senior vice president for partnerships and a former leader of Sun Microsystems' workstation business, and Jack Herzog, senior vice president of sales and a former executive at Sun, Data General and Hewlett-Packard.