3Leaf Systems: Scale up by scaling out

Silicon Valley virtualization startup pools commodity servers, reshaping enterprise datacenters

3Leaf Systems co-founder and CEO Bob Quinn is a betting man. A veteran of startups specializing in event-driven architectures, network processing, and scalable SMP (symmetric multiprocessing) systems, Quinn is now wagering that hardware and software technology will turn heaps of AMD and Intel x64 servers into virtualized "warehouses" of compute, memory, and I/O resources.

"3Leaf was a bet made on several things," Quinn points out. "We've made quite a lot of bets that technology would evolve in a certain direction, and we've been very lucky. They've all paid off, every single one of them."

The first bet was that 64-bit x86 processors would become prevalent in the enterprise datacenter. The second bet was that AMD, which licensed core HyperTransport technology to 3Leaf, would boost its share of the server market in a big way. The third bet was that semiconductor switching technology would reach extremely high bandwidth and very low latencies.

"Another key bet was virtualization," Quinn adds. "One part of that was that virtualization would be embraced by the enterprise community, which of course it has been. And the second part of that bet is that the processor vendors would see that this was going to happen and craft support for virtualization into their silicon. Both Intel and AMD have done that."

Now that those pieces have fallen into place, Quinn and his 3Leaf co-founders -- chief business officer Sash Sunkara and technical directors Scott Lurndal and Isam Akkawi  -- have a two-phase plan. Phase one came to fruition last week  with the arrival of 3Leaf's V-8000 Virtual I/O Server, an appliance that enables dynamic allocation of network and storage bandwidth among as many as 20 Windows, Linux, and VMware ESX servers.

"The secret sauce is software that allows us to take a number of standard commodity host bus adapters and network adapters and craft them into a set of virtual services (with) QoS, bandwidth allocation and mutipathing and resiliency," Quinn says. "All of the typical mainframe class capabilities, made available to commodity x86 servers."

3Leaf promises customers huge hardware cost savings, as well as easier I/O provisioning and management. For example, one customer cited by Quinn used the V-8000 to halve the number of physical I/O connections (from Ethernet and Fibre Channel to Ethernet only) for 1,000 production servers. The same customer was able to consolidate 1,000 dedicated failover servers to just a fraction of that number, Quinn said.

In general, the V-8000 makes it much more cost-effective to connect large numbers of commodity servers to a SAN; without the Virtual I/O Server, the cost of connectivity can exceed the cost of the server itself, Quinn points out.

Phase two of 3Leaf's "Virtual Compute Environment" initiative will be a processor, based on AMD interconnect technology, that virtualizes CPU and memory resources across racks of Opteron servers. Quinn says the chip will arrive in preproduction form this year and ship in 2008. (Considering that 3Leaf just received $20 Million in funding from Intel Capital, you would guess correctly that 3Leaf also plans to virtualize servers with Intel processors.)

"Our initial support will be only for AMD, but we'll follow that with support for Intel," Quinn said. "Our objective is to be completely agnostic to processor vendors [and] agnostic to commodity operating systems, so we support Windows and Linux and all of its flavors. We also support [VMware] ESX for our first product. And we're agnostic to interconnect fabrics whether it be InfiniBand or Ethernet or DCE … we support them all."

When fully realized, 3Leaf's Virtual Compute Environment promises to transform a 19-inch rack of 32 servers into a single chunk of 256 processor cores and a terabyte of memory that businesses can slice and dice to meet their needs. And 3Leaf promises all that without sacrificing mainframe-class reliability, redundancy, bandwidth allocation, or management capabilities.

"The pain points we're addressing in the enterprise datacenter really are there because of the switch from scale-up computing to scale-out computing," Quinn explains.

"The mainframe-class I/O capability and scalability and resiliency and redundancy which we got in the scale-up systems of course were very expensive … but they have not been replaced yet in the x86 domain. One of the focuses of 3Leaf is to do exactly that."