Louisiana State University researchers Erik Schnetter and Steven Brandt are among those who wanted to buy a SiCortex machine but weren't able to before the company went out of business. The researchers, who work at the university's Center for Computation & Technology, were able to remotely access a SiCortex cluster to study binary black holes and gravitational waves.
Schnetter said the SiCortex system was comparable to IBM's Blue Gene/P, with similar power draw per core, but the SiCortex machine was easier to use. "It had the best flop per watt of any system out there," Brandt says. "It also had a fairly fast, interesting proprietary network on it. We were hoping to figure out interesting ways of exploiting that."
Despite customer interest, SiCortex faced numerous challenges that made success an uphill battle. Each individual processor in a SiCortex system was not that powerful, notes IDC analyst Steve Conway. But the analyst says the biggest problem was SiCortex was "trying to do something daring and against the grain."
The HPC market has swung heavily toward the use of commodity processors, namely x86 chips from Intel and AMD. But SiCortex went against conventional wisdom by building its own processors and this decision limited the company's market to early adopters, Conway says. In building its chips, SiCortex obtained intellectual property from several vendors, including MIPS Technologies, and tweaked the design to meet its own needs.
"For a company like that entering an established market, it takes time to get a good footprint and the right kind of profitability," Conway says. In this case, "investors were not willing to wait the normal amount of time that in a healthier economy a company like SiCortex would have had."During its years of operation SiCortex had purchased intellectual property from several companies, including QLogic's PathScale compiler business. Supercomputer company Cray decided to purchase the PathScale compiler suite from SiCortex after it went out of business, because the PathScale technology is used by many Cray customers.
But the rest of SiCortex's intellectual property has gone unclaimed. Leonard says he "can't understand why somebody hasn't bought it." But the technology is aimed at a marketplace that is difficult to sell into, says Cray vice president of scalable systems Barry Bolding. The HPC world may not object to energy efficiency, but it's not often the top priority, he says.
"The idea of high-performance computing that's highly energy efficient is a difficult space, because you're trading off performance," Bolding says. "What we've found at Cray is performance is king. It still really is difficult to make a full value proposition on only the energy efficiency."
SiCortex typically sold smaller systems than Cray, Bolding says. In a better economy SiCortex could have survived "but I think they would have had trouble moving up in to the high-performance space," he says.
Conway fears that SiCortex's demise will stifle innovation in the high-performance computing industry. "I think, unfortunately, one of the lessons is that this is not going to encourage other vendors to take risks," he says.
But the men who founded SiCortex, while hoping for a better outcome, don't regret the chance they took. In a blog post after SiCortex shut down, Reilly says he believes there is still room for non-x86 machines in the HPC market.