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3/31/2006
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Azul Unveils Plans For 48-Core Processor

The move comes as most x86-based servers move to dual- and quad-core microprocessors.

By the end of this year, almost all servers will be sold with dual-core processors. Next year will bring quad-core systems from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices. But the multicore processor revolution already may be leaving those advances in the dust with the availability of offerings such as Azul Systems' 24-core Vega processor, which the vendor last week said it will push to 48 cores next year. Amazing stuff--if anyone needs it.

Multicore processors operate more efficiently than standard ones, using less electricity and generating less heat as they perform compute-intensive tasks. Sun Microsystems also has entered the multicore market and in December began offering servers based on its new UltraSparc T1, or Niagara, processor, which has eight computing cores, each operating with four separate threads.

"This is a quantum leap," says Steve Lapekas, CTO at Pegasus Solutions, a provider of transaction-processing services to hotels. "I just don't see that there's a more efficient solution per square foot out there. I was impressed by the 24-core [Vega], but this move to 48 cores sets the bar for the industry."

Lapekas has installed two Azul network-attached servers, each containing eight Vega 24-core processors, providing Pegasus with 192 processing engines in two server racks. The company uses the systems to process more than 1 billion transactions each month.

By using the Azul systems, Pegasus estimates it will save about $70,000 in electricity over the next three years compared with using x86-based servers, Lapekas says.

Azul's technical edge will become even more dramatic next year when it releases servers incorporating its new 48-core Vega 2 processor, says Scott Sellers, Azul's hardware engineering VP and a co-founder of the company. Those systems will be able to scale to a 768-way multiprocessing system, supporting up to 768 Gbytes of memory. Azul's largest platform today provides up to 384-way processing capability and 256 Gbytes of memory in a rack-mountable enclosure that consumes 2,700 watts of electricity.

Getting Small

The original Vega processor is made using a 130-nanometer process. By moving to a 90-nanometer process for the Vega 2, Azul will be able to double the number of processing cores in the 812-million transistor design without significantly increasing the size of the chip, Sellers says. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing, Azul's chip foundry, is testing early versions of the Vega 2.

Superpowered Options
Vega 1 Sun UltraSparc T1
Processor 24 core 8 core
Memory 256 Gbytes 32 Gbytes
Largest system power consumption 2,700 watts 275 watts
Azul knows that, as a startup, it has a lot to prove before companies bet critical processes on it. "They want to see that we aren't one-hit wonders, and that there's a strong road map," Sellers says. "Most of the dual-core designs you see in the market today from other vendors are being manufactured on 90-nanometer or 65-nanometer processes. The fact that we can put 48 cores on a 90-nanometer design speaks to the engineering prowess at Azul."

Azul also has found itself in a legal spat with Sun over Sun's claims of patent infringement and misappropriation of trade secrets by the startup. Several Azul execs worked at Sun. Last month, Azul filed suit against Sun seeking "declaratory relief" from Sun's claims.

While intrigued by the progress Azul has made over the past year, Gordon Haff, an analyst with Illuminata, points out that the privately held company has yet to provide many details on how its systems are selling or who's using them. His concern: The technology may be outrunning mainstream users.

"I would have liked to have heard more about customers who are using this successfully [rather] than their next processor iteration," Haff says. The 48-core processor "is interesting from a techno-geek perspective, but we've still heard very little about customers."

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