Purdue was one of about 80 customers of SiCortex, based in Maynard, Mass., in the building that once served as headquarters for the once high-flying Digital Equipment Corp. The company was founded in 2002 by chief engineer Matt Reilly and Leonard, who knew each other from their days at DEC. Reilly and Leonard were interested in building a new type of high-performance computing cluster and "thought there must be a better way to build clusters than to pull together a bunch of desktop computers," Leonard says.
SiCortex designed its architecture from the ground up to handle multithreaded applications in scientific research settings while using unusually low amounts of electricity. The company used relatively slow, inexpensive processors but stitched them together with a very fast, distributed communications network in which every processor contains some network ability, in a so-called Kautz graph topology.
As Leonard explains, "Each component of the system includes a small portion of the switch fabric and you wire them together so you don't need a separate component to do the fabric switching." Low power draw made it possible to achieve high density -- up to 5,832 processors in a single system.
The result is a machine ideal for many types of applications that require parallel processing, according to McCartney. Workloads that need fast individual processors are not well suited for the SiCortex machine, he says. But when researchers need lots of processors to perform a task, and don't care about the speed of each one, the SiCortex computers are often the right choice, he says.
SiCortex -- which brought former Novell executive Chris Stone on as its CEO -- received its first funding in 2004, shipped its first beta machine in July 2007 and went into production early in 2008. SiCortex received about $68 million in financing and venture debt over the years from investors including Chevron Technology Partners, Flagship Ventures, JK&B Capital, Prism VentureWorks, and Polaris Venture Partners.
After the economy went south, one investor pulled out and the rest soon followed. "What happened was one of the investors had overcommitted themselves and backed away," Leonard says. "The others just didn't feel they had enough disposable cash to replace that, and they simply had no choice but to let it go."
SiCortex, with about 80 employees, had been building momentum. Its largest machines sold for upwards of $1 million and the company announced revenue growth of more than 100% in the first quarter of 2009. SiCortex wasn't profitable yet, but "we were running ahead of plan," Leonard says.
But building a new systems company requires large amounts of capital over many years, and SiCortex needed more in order to build the next version of its HPC cluster. "The plan called for cash flow to break even in about a year and a half, which was really the problem," Leonard says. "During that time, we needed to bring out a new system and that meant plunking down millions of dollars for the new chip design and getting it through fab. There really wasn't a way to defer those expenses. We knew we were going to have to be competing against Intel's Nehalem chips in the very near future. There just wasn't much of a way to cut the costs and bring the break-even closer."
After shutting its doors SiCortex kept on a skeleton crew staff to support existing customers. "One of the things I found particularly amazing is after the company shut down … we got calls from people who had heard about us and wanted to buy a system before they were out of stock," Leonard says.