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Azul puts 384-way Java rocket up for sale

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Azul Systems has turned the concept of a server appliance on its head with a soon to be released Java software crunching workhorse.

A server appliance used to be a small, cuddly system with one or two processors that handled fixed functions well. It could hum away serving up web pages and required little administration. Start-up Azul has blown the top off this appliance definition by unveiling three systems that start with 96 processor cores at the low-end. That's right - low-end.

Azul first discussed its proprietary Vega chip that sits at the heart of the new boxes back in October of last year. The chip is one of the most radical designs to date with a whopping 24 processor cores all dedicated to crunching away at software that uses virtual machine technology. Specifically, Vega-powered systems will be aimed at handling BEA's WebLogic and IBM's WebSphere Java-based application servers. (An Azul executive formally requested that we not suggest that Vega is only suited for Java processing even though that's the only kind of processing the company will commit to right now. Down the road, Azul might promote Vega's prowess with Microsoft's C# software, SAP products and even Python applications.)

In the next couple of months, Azul will start shipping the 96-core system along with a 192-core box and a 384-core box. As you might expect, this horsepower ain't cheap.

The 5U "low-end" system with 96 cores and 32GB of memory will start at $89,000. The 11U midrange box with 64GB of memory will cost $199,000 and the 11U high-end system with 128GB of memory will start at $499,000. A version of that system with 256GB of memory will also be available for $799,000.

These prices may seem overwhelming, and trying to put things in perspective is little help. The midrange and high-end systems basically cost a bit more than $1,000 per processor core. You could theoretically compare that with a traditional one-way server.

Less simplistic comparisons demand that you stack the Azul boxes against Unix SMPs from the likes of IBM and Sun Microsystems and against clusters of two-way and four-way Xeon servers. Then you start looking at what types of software loads are running on these systems and different transaction volumes and apples to apples quickly turns into mangos to kumquats.

We can only assume that Azul will be more specific with potential customers on performance comparisons than it was with the press. The company told The Register that for low transaction loads, traditional systems may perform better since data must go to the application server, the Azul system and then the database. With large loads, however, customers should see the Azul boxes really kick in.

"We have a guidelines that say, with the introduction of our system, you can increase your load anywhere from 5x to 30x with similar response times," said Shahin Khan, chief marketing officer at Azul and a former Sun executive.

Basically, the Azul systems aren't meant to work as replacements for existing servers. Instead, they will be plugged into the data center and handle much of the processing load typically done by application servers. In addition, Azul has built in virtual machine specific tools such as speedy garbage collection tools to improve its performance with Java and similar software.

Like any start-up, Azul has a number of challenges ahead of it. Most importantly, it will need to convince large customers to think about their server purchases in a new way. There are conceptual issues to deal with here along with concrete problems such as how BEA and IBM will price their software for the Azul systems. We're told both software makers will use a unique formula to determine how much a customer will pay for their application servers.

"We've been working with IBM and BEA to come up with a licensing cost that is revenue neutral to them and cost neutral to the customer," Khan said.

BEA has offered up a 25 per cent per processor licensing discount to customers using dual-core chips from Sun, IBM and AMD, while IBM treats dual-core chips like two separate processors and offers no discount. Apparently, however, an entirely new pricing scheme will apply for Azul. Good luck figuring out what "cost neutral" means in that world.

In addition, the 150 person start-up needs to convince massive, transaction hungry customers that paying close to $1m for a single Java workhorse is a safe bet. Along those lines, Azul announced a recent agreement to work in conjunction with IBM's Global Services group for typical maintenance and training tasks.

Azul will also let any customer try out a box for 45 days at no charge. If the customer likes the system, Azul will take back the trial box and ship out a brand new bit of kit.

There's more information on the boxes available here. Happy processing. ®

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