In a data center at Purdue University, a rare supercomputer is crunching numbers for researchers studying a broad range of scientific problems. The 5,832-processor machine is capable of performing 8 trillion calculations per second, yet it consumes just a fraction of the electricity needed by Purdue's other supercomputers. The machine is one of a kind at Purdue -- because the company that built it doesn't exist anymore.
It comes from the recently folded SiCortex, a start-up founded with the idea of building the world's most efficient computers. SiCortex's story illustrates the difficulty of trying to build a new systems company in a maturing industry. Even if the idea is innovative, the product solves real-world problems and the company attracts an experienced management team and venture backing, success is far from guaranteed.
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"It's always difficult to build this type of company," says Jud Leonard, SiCortex co-founder and chief architect. "You're up against a very well established, strongly entrenched business and you know, Intel is a fierce competitor. We never imagined it was going to be an easy job."
Purdue CIO Gerry McCartney says SiCortex helped him address one of his nagging challenges: providing compute cycles to researchers without overwhelming his power and cooling systems. McCartney was hoping to buy one or two more SiCortex clusters and put them together to build one giant scientific research machine, but he'll never get the chance.
In a better time, SiCortex might have carved out a profitable niche in the high-performance computing market. Instead, the vendor shut its doors in May when venture capitalists yanked its funding. SiCortex officials believe the recession played a major role in the company's demise, but even in a good economy the company would have been fighting an uphill battle in a market dominated by Intel- and AMD-based supercomputers.
No other vendor has purchased SiCortex's core intellectual property. But its technology will live on for a time in data centers such as Purdue's, where the SiCortex cluster performs millions of CPU hours of research per month for researchers in aeronautics, computer science, nanoelectronic devices, mechanical engineering and other fields.
"We're not going to unplug it just because the company's gone away," McCartney says of his SC5832, the highest-end machine sold by SiCortex. "The promise of this was a very low power consumption device with a very friendly carbon output. The limiting factor on most of our purchases is the power and cooling requirement. SiCortex was really a very good machine in that regard. It's terribly disappointing that they've gone out of business."