Start-up banks on Java hardware boost

Hardware expected to begin selling next year is designed to make it faster and more efficient to run Java programs.

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A Silicon Valley start-up called Azul Systems plans to start selling hardware next year designed to make it faster and more efficient to run Java programs.

The company has developed a custom processor called Vega that provides a hardware foundation for Java programs that's faster than the application server software from companies such as BEA Systems, IBM, Oracle and Sun Microsystems that's most widely used today to run Java programs. But Azul believes the reason customers will be drawn to the hardware will be efficiency rather than acceleration.

Azul Chief Executive Stephen DeWitt said Azul's technology will do for Java software what networking has done for storage: let customers use a pool of resources efficiently shared by many servers. In the first half of 2005, Azul expects to sell systems with four to 16 customized processors that graft onto a customer's existing server infrastructure for running Java programs.

The devices are likely to be useful to larger companies, said RedMonk analyst Stephen O'Grady. "I think it's something of a niche most attractive to people with some pretty substantial workloads and computing needs," he said. Average Java server users, though, "are probably not going to be clamoring for this."

And selling chips to boost Java has been a business with ups and downs. Most contenders, such as Nazomi Communications, Ajile Systems and ARM, aimed for high-end mobile phones, while Sun dropped its own Java chip project.

Servers are different from cell phones, though, and in that market customized processors are more common. Several companies offer custom chips to accelerate Internet encryption operations, while ClearSpeed is working on chips to offload mathematical processing chores.

Java is widely used software developed by Sun that lets the same program run on many different computers. The program runs in a software environment called a Java virtual machine (JVM)--in effect a software version of a computer that insulates the program from the varying particulars of a computer's hardware.

Moving software to hardware
Azul's Vega chip effectively moves some of that Java foundation into hardware. And because each Vega chip has 24 processing cores, a 16-processor machine can host as many as 384 Java virtual machines. "We have built massive pools of compute capacity that any application built on an application virtual machine can tap into," DeWitt said.

Azul's systems plug into existing application servers, which need a minor configuration change to direct Java programs to the Azul JVM rather than the application server's regular version. Azul is working to have its products certified with application servers from IBM and BEA, which lead the market.

Azul also is working with Microsoft to obtain the support necessary to let the systems dovetail with the software colossus' .Net infrastructure, which uses C# and the Common Language Runtime (CLR) instead of the Java programming language and a JVM.

Working with .Net requires "absolutely no modifications to the hardware. The difference between the CLR world and the Java world is that Java is open. The CLR world is Microsoft," DeWitt said. "It requires a business relationship with Microsoft to open up that code."

Another future direction, planned for future chips, is the ability to better withstand failures, DeWitt said. Right now, if a virtual machine fails, the transactions it was working on must be restarted, but a future product will be able to keep the process alive, he said.

"We don't have transactional fault tolerance," DeWitt said. "That's something that's a logical evolution down the road."

Azul's Vega processors are a new design not based on any existing chips, DeWitt said. The company is working on a successor to the first-generation model, he added.

A stint at Sun
DeWitt has had some experience with a Java-centric view of the world. When Sun acquired his last start-up, server maker Cobalt Networks, for about $2 billion, Sun initially positioned the products as a foundation for Java applications to direct attention away from the fact that it had just let Intel-based products into its product line alongside its primary UltraSparc-based products.

The Cobalt acquisition didn't pan out, though, and DeWitt left Sun in 2002.

On his own again, DeWitt isn't afraid to set high expectations for Azul's technology. "This should usher in a huge period of innovation as people write applications that can take advantage of this power," he said.

But O'Grady was more cautious, citing other limitations in Java. "I don't talk to too many customers concerned about where their JVM is running. I think a lot of the problems people have is beyond the JVM. It's in the coding and development," he said.

DeWitt wouldn't say who's testing the company's prototypes except to say there are large customers in financial services, telecommunications, transportation and technology.

For sales, Azul plans a direct approach to customers, bolstered by partnerships with existing server and Java software companies, DeWitt said. The company will sell the technology as small, medium, large or "enormous" pools of processing capability, he said.

Azul has gone through three rounds of funding. Investors include Accel Partners, Austin Ventures, ComVentures, Redpoint Ventures and Worldview Technology Partners.