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Big-iron brains powers Schooner appliance power

Putting a ding in server size

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A start up driven by some big-iron brains has emerged from stealth mode to deliver, no, not a better server but a duo of server appliances - one to accelerate web caching and the other to speed up MySQL databases.

Schooner Information Technology was founded in February 2007 by president and chief executive officer John Busch, and chairman and chief technology officer Tom McWilliams.

Both have very long and deep experience in IT, and given the enthusiasm for server appliances and any technology that will help data centers save money and speed up performance, Busch and McWilliams had no trouble raising cash. They got $15m in Series A venture capital from CMEA Capital and Redpoint Ventures to fund the research and development behind their appliances, which already have 11 patents filed concerning their design.

So what of those backgrounds? Busch worked his way up through the ranks of Hewlett-Packard, and for a dozen years was in charge of the technology behind its HP 3000 proprietary minicomputer platform - the one that predates the company's entry into Unix by a decade. He was also co-founder and head of engineering at Clarity Software, and after that worked as the vice president of engineering at a network appliance maker called Diba, which Sun Microsystems acquired in 1997.

Once at Sun, Busch headed computer systems research at Sun Labs, doing some of the original research that lead to the chip multithreading architectures on the Niagara Sparc T and Rock UltraSparc-RK that Sun hopes will preserve and extend the Sparc's reach in the enterprise.

McWilliams was a supercomputer designer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and then in the early 1980s, he founded a company called Valid Logic Systems, which did a lot of the basic research behind computer aided-engineering systems. In 1987, McWilliams founded a server maker called Key Computer, which made one of the first superscalar pipelined processors and which was acquired by clone mainframe maker Amdahl in 1987. That left McWilliams in charge of Amdahl's systems architecture group.

In 1993, McWilliams jumped to Silicon Graphics and took over development of its MIPS RISC chips, which he did until Sun bought the Starfire server line from SGI. From 1996 to 2001, McWilliams work on Sun's server architecture and also on CAD tools. After leaving Sun in 2001, he founded PathScale, which created a supercomputer interconnect based on InfiniBand, a company that was acquired by QLogic in 2006.

You'd think these two would get together and build a better server. And in a way, that is what they have done. But rather than build general purpose machines, they are instead creating appliances tuned to do specific jobs and that help knock out large numbers of general purpose machines in the data center that don't do these jobs very well.

"We took a hard look at scale-out architectures - Web 2.0, cloud computing, and the like - and what we saw was a high amount of power consumption, complex software, and a lot of inefficient iron," Busch said. "We saw a large opportunity to make a dent in this."

That's what a lot of vendors and IT managers see, but some IT vendors - those that make their dough selling x64 iron or operating systems and middleware stacks running on them - actually make their money because of the inefficiencies, however much they bemoan them.

The first workload that Schooner is attacking is web caching, something that is happening every day behind all of the web pages we surf when we are supposed to be working. To make a web site hum - where you want to get complex queries on search engines to come back in a hundred milliseconds or so and for those queries to hit tens or hundreds of servers to get their results - you have to cache everything, not just the results of queries.

And so, Web 2.0 companies have racks and racks of x64 servers sitting there caching things, usually employing an open-source program called Memcached.

Schooner thinks it has built a better Memcached mousetrap. It has taken one of IBM's two-socket System x servers using Intel's new Nehalem EP Xeon 5560 processors - four-core, eight threads, running at 2.8GHz - and then stacked eight of Intel's 64GB X25-E Extreme solid state disks - which are arranged vertically inside the System x's 2U chassis - for a total of 512GB of flash memory; the machine also has 64GB of DDR3 main memory.

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