Azul plans to leapfrog rivals with 48-core chip

As the chip market moves from making denser, hotter processors to combining multiple cores, Azul Systems Inc. has announced plans to leapfrog its competitors by releasing a 48-core chip by 2007.

The company, based in Mountain View, California, already sells a 24-core chip called Vega 1. Its Vega 2 processor will be a 64-bit, 90-nanometer processor designed by Azul and fabricated by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co.

Chip manufacturers like Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. are following a similar path as they pursue their technology roadmaps toward upgrading their current crop of dual-core chips to quad-core processors by 2007.

The difference is that Vega chips are designed to power large data centers, packaged as 16-chip rack-mounted systems manufactured by Azul. Azul’s customers are Fortune 1000 companies that need on-demand service for transaction-intensive tasks such as online commerce.

A closer competitor is Sun Microsystems Inc. In fact, Azul sued Sun in March to defend against a threatened trademark infringement suit. Azul systems rely on Sun’s Java or Microsoft’s .Net platforms to tie together their pools of computing resources.

The move from 24 to 48 cores per chip will help grow those pools so large that companies can share the excess capacity, instead of stocking up on extra computers of their own.

“Many data centers buy computing like it’s beer; they run out to get another six-pack every week. They may buy 10 extra systems as an insurance policy so they can handle a jump in capacity; that’s a huge waste,” said Shahin Khan, Azul’s vice president and chief marketing officer.

In contrast, Azul treats processing and memory as a shared network service, called “network attached processing” (NAP).

“It is similar to network attached storage, which took the disk out of the server and put it on the network. NAP does the same thing with CPUs and memory,” Khan said.

One customer will be BT PLC of London. On April 3 the company announced it would use Azul hardware to provide telecommunications and broadband Internet service. With 20 million business and residential customers in the U.K., BT needs a flexible computing center capable of scaling up and down as its customers require their on-demand services.

Another Azul customer is Pegasus Solutions Co., of Dallas. The company manages online hotel reservations, at a pace of 100,000 transactions per month. It will use collections of Vega chips to handle wide swings in traffic, since people who book their own trips are less predictable than travel agents.

For its next act, Azul plans to keep expanding its multi-core model. The Vega 1 chip is built on 130-nanometer technology, while Vega 2 uses 90 nm. Azul engineers are already making plans to shrink the die size to 65 and 45 nm, Khan said.

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