Wednesday, December 14, 2011
Interview with Larry Wikelius and David Borland, Calxeda
Today's data centers are known for their consumption of city-sized amount of power, to run banks of servers and air conditioning. Those power hungry data centers need nothing short of a revolutionary technology breakthrough to break free of those limitations. Austin-based Calxeda (www.calxeda.com) is looking to do nothing less than that, revolutionizing the server market by creating servers based on ARM-based chips, which consume far less power and space than traditional x86 processors. We caught up with co-founders David Borland and Larry Wikelius to learn more about the company and its quest.
Thanks for the time today. Let's start with the basics -- for those who aren't familiar with Calxeda, can you explain your technology?
Larry Wikelius: Our focus is in the server market, where we are taking energy optimized systems into the server space. In particular, we are using the ARM core, which has historically been more of a mobile or client focused device, and applying it to server workloads. We're using our technology and innovation around that core, and delivering incredible performance per watt, the most improvement that has ever been done in the server market.
There's a huge, entrenched world of x86 servers. Can you talk about the advantage of the ARM processors in that world?
Larry Wikelius: There's a couple of reasons. The power efficiency that ARM brings is a bid driver for us, but also, the software ecosystem that has evolved over time is significant as well. There is a very well established set of tools and operating systems, operating system support, plus ISVs and a number of applications as well, which run very efficiently on this platform. It's worth mentioning that our company DNA is really about bringing two worlds together, the mobile and the server side. David and I are an example of that. David's background is the client side, ARM-based mobile devices. He's shipped millions of devices. My background is from the high end server space and the software side. We're really bringing those worlds together, and the company as a whole reflects that diversity of backgrounds. We're really taking the best of both worlds, and creating something that is very unique, which adds tremendous value, and addresses the platform and data center space today.
David Borland: We started by identifying the issues with web and cloud, and with growing server usage, and we found that it's really fundamentally about power, not performance. What people want to do is increase their capacity, but they don't have the power, cooling, and physical space to do that. In the web and cloud, it's really about data movement, bandwidth, and networking, versus performance. That gives us the opportunity to really look at the server in a different way, and optimize for those applications, versus what historically has been done.
You've got strong links to ARM, can you talk about that relationship?
David Borland: The company was founded in 2008 by our CEO, Barry Evans. Larry and I joined towards the beginning of 2009. What he did, is he started looking at the market, and talking to end users, and really identified that the trend in power and cooling was a significant problem. In doing that, he came up with a vision of a different way to address the needs and this growing market. With the end user in mind, he went to ARM, and formed a partnership to start exploring the server market using ARM technology. The people at ARM were the first to give us some seed funding, and as they did that toward the beginning of 2009, we got our next set of funding from the Texas Emerging Technology Fund. That allowed us to build up our staff to get our ideas going, to ge tthe development going, and through that development engaging with customers and end users. We were able to secure funding in August of 2010 from a mix of strategic investors and venture capitalists. As you know, 2009 and 2010 clearly wasn't a great time to raise money, especially in a semiconductor company. You'd believe there would never be another semiconductor startup, because of the capital investment and risk associated with that. Despite that, because of our value proposition and end user pool, and having something that was ten times better, that really got the attention of investors, and we were able to put together a significant funding round together and complete development.
It is quite unusual for a semiconductor startup to get funding in this current environment. Is there any key thing which convinced your investors to back your efforts?
Larry Wikelius: As David mentioned, we spent lots of time meeting with end users. We really spent time understanding end user demand, and also created a poll for end users and providers, our partners, and our customers, and got recognition of how much value and impact this type of solution could have on their bottom line. Because of that, we were able to look to our potential investors with knowledge of the demand side. We were also able to put together an extremely strong team early on, representing both the technical team and leadership team. That combination of those two was really significant. I also think that we were able to show an approach where we would be able to accomplish what we're doing for the semiconductor world, in a very efficient way, which has proven effective. That went a long way to closing the deal.
How far along are you, and any thoughts on when we'll see some first products and servers incorporating your processors?
Larry Wikelius: Unfortunately, that's not something that we're commenting on, because we can't represent our customer's schedules and products. There's a range of time so it's not possible to provide a clear answer.
What's the next big thing for you?
Larry Wikelius: Over time, we'll continue to grow in technical capability and in the ecosystem. We take a lot of pride in the partnerships we've been able to establish, and that's really just the beginning. We have a number of other software and hardware partners we'll continue to develop in the space, which will enable us to go into other markets and continue to grow the company. We are on a fast growth path, and are always looking for the next best talent in Austin. Today we're just over 50 people, and we've doubled in the past year.
Speaking of Austin, how has Austin been for you as a location?
Larry Wikelius: It's been absolutely perfect, in that ARM also has a large facility here in town. That's been extremely helpful in continuing to work with that team. There's also a good, representative set of skills we've talked about here in Austin. We have strong technical folks coming out of the mobile side, we've got a good software base, and good server experience. We have also benefited from being close to UT. We originally started out of the Austin Technology Incubator, and we have successful relationships with students. Those are just some of the examples where Austin has been tremendous for us.