Calxeda lives! (Well, at least the Fabric does!)

Last week, in conjunction with the AMD announcement that they are (finally!) shipping the Opteron A1100 series ARM Cortex A57,  a little-known company debuted 2 fabric interconnect solutions for Hyperscale data centers. As some of you may recall, AtGames Holdings purchase the Intellectual Property from Calxeda’s bankers a little over a year ago.  AtGames was lined up to be Calxeda’s largest initial customer, and were left in a jam when Calxeda suddenly folded. The SilverLining Systems subsidiary announced that they had taken the Calxeda technology and have repackaged and reimagined it to produce two new products aimed at the Rack-scale Fabric market. Given all the excitement this fabric generated, this was perhaps more newsworthy than the expected AMD announcement,  so I wanted to chime in with a few thoughts

Calxeda

The first product is a PCIe card with one Calxeda ECX-2000 ARM SOC,  supplying 4 XAUI ports  to interconnect other servers on eh fabric,  and one 10GbE SFP for uplinks to the Top Of Rack Switch.  It also supports up to 8 GB of optional DRAM to enable the four ARM Cortex A15 processors (normally turned off when the card is acting only as a fabric adapter) to execute jobs such as packet inspection and other offload tasks.   The second product, which will be available in Mid 2016, is an ASIC for custom server developers.  The Fabric Interconnect Chip (FIC) is basically the ECX-2000 without the cache and the A15 cores, providing the 80 GbE fabric switch, the PHY’s, and the ARM Cortex A7 to manage the routing tables and optimize traffic flow across the fabric.  These products will reduce in-rack networking costs by around 75%, according to Silver Lining Systems.

With this announcement, the promise of the Calxeda Fabric is decoupled from the ARM world and can now be used to interconnect standard x86 servers, or build custom dense servers with virtually any processor or SOC.  TPM has already covered the products in this article, but for those who knew and loved Calxeda,  I’d like to add a few comments.   (Full disclosure:  I have been recently consulting with Silver Lining Systems.)

Newport

The SLS Newport fabric interconnect adapter (FIA)

There is a lesson here for all you guys trying to provide innovative new technologies. One that is so obvious it can easily be overlooked in the zest for New and Improved!.   Your new product must provide unique value but it MUST BE EASILY CONSUMED.   Calxeda changed too many things at once:  “Here’s a new processor  with a new (for servers) instruction set, a new (fledgling) ecosystem, in a new form factor,  and with a radically different networking topology and management approach.”  “WHOA!” the customers all said.  “One change at at time, please!”

Now, had we simply focussed on ARM, we might have been more successful, but without a differentiator we wouldn’t have lasted long.  Had we just been a Fabric company, going up against Mellanox and CISCO and Intel and …,  we never would have gotten the funding. BUT, had we produced two dies, the Fabric customer could have kept his Intel processors, as SLS has done now, or just used the ARM SOC  as AMD has done,  or they could combine the two.  But we didn’t offer them that choice.  We realized the problem, but it was too late to fix it and we ran out of cash when our investors ran out of patience.

So, bottom line?  Change as little as possible and still produce value through innovation. OR produce a plug and play complete solution like an iPhone that fits within the larger infrastructure the customer is already comfortable with.

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