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Start-up could kick Opteron into overdrive

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So far, DRC has seen the most interest from oil and gas companies looking to put specific algorithms on the FPGAs. Manufacturing firms and financial services companies have also looked at the DRC products for help with their own routines. It's not hard to imagine companies such as Linux Networx, Cray or SGI (when it does the inevitable and backs Opteron) wanting to move away from more expensive FPGA products as well in order to service the high-performance computing market.

Eventually, standard server makers could turn to the FPGAs to help with security or networking workloads.

"There does seem to be this kind of general feeling in places like IBM and Sun that the time may be here to use some special purpose processors or parts of processors for various things," Haff said. "The FPGA approach is certainly one way of doing that. It does have the advantage that you're not locked into a particular function at any time because you can dynamically reprogram it."

The DRC products also come with potential energy cost savings that could be a plus for end users and server vendors that have started hawking "green computing." Power has become the most expensive item for many large data centers.

The first set of DRC modules will consume about 10 - 20 watts versus close to 80 watts for an Opteron chip. An upcoming larger DRC module will consume twice the power and be able to handle larger algorithms.

"We believe we will get 10 to 20x application acceleration at 40 per cent of the power," Laurich said. "At the same time, we're looking at a 2 to 3x price performance advantage."

A motherboard with DRC and Opteron chip It will, of course, take some time to build out the software for the DRC modules. The company has started shipping its first machines to channel partners that specialize in developing applications for FPGAs. An oil and gas company wanting to move its code to the product could expect the process to take about 6 months.

If DRC takes off, the company plans to bulk up from its current 13-person operation and to tap partners in different verticals to help out with the software work.

DRC also thinks it can maintain a competitive advantage over potential rivals via its patent portfolio. The modules result from work done by FPGA pioneer Steve Casselman, who is a co-founder and CTO of the company. Casselman told us that he had been waiting for something like Hypertransport to come along for years and that AMD's opening up of the specification almost brought tears to his eyes.

It's always difficult to judge how well a start-up will pan out, especially one that needs to build out systems and software to make it a success. DRC, however, does have - at the moment - that rare feeling of something special.

It's playing off standard server components and riding the Opteron wave. In addition, it is reducing the cost of acceleration modules in a dramatic fashion. That combination of serious horsepower with much lower costs is typically the right recipe for a decent start-up, and we'll be curious to see how things progress in the coming months.

You can have a look at the DRC kit here. ®

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