Break free from virtual bondage

Azul has invented a system to take some of the pressure off of core systems by diverting virtual processes onto separate specialised servers

The start-up is emerging from the shadows with an interesting proposition — what it calls network attached processing. The idea, surprisingly enough, is similar to network attached storage, but is designed to offload the grunt work of running virtual machines — Java, .Net or any other kind — to a scalable computing fabric based on hardware specialised for the task.

Azul is still at the stage of informing the public of its existence. The company was formed in 2002, with Cobalt founder Stephen DeWitt recruited as chief executive, but was only publicly unveiled in September 2004. Its first products were announced at the end of April 2005 and became generally available at the end of June. Azul opened a full-scale UK operation — based in Slough — in October.

"We have a healthy double-digit number of engagements with household-name customers," says Shahin Khan, Azul vice-president and chief marketing officer. These include telcos, e-commerce companies, manufacturing and financial services, he says. Among the customers they've gone public with so far are data centre management company EDS and Pegasus Solutions, which handles bookings for about 60,000 hotels, cruise liners and other travel reservations.

Products in the company's Compute Appliance line, launched in April, sell for up to $800,000 (£467,000), but Azul is also taking aim at the mainstream. In early November the company launched a 100-core platform called CentiCore, priced at $60,000.

How it works
So what does Azul actually do? The company's big idea is that the rapidly growing virtual machine workload in the enterprise — caused by a boom in J2EE-based applications — calls for a new way of handling processing. General-purpose servers aren't especially well designed for running virtual machines, whether Java, .Net or any other type, and adding more VM processing capacity in a conventional server arrangement is expensive.

Enter Azul, which leaves a company's existing infrastructure in place, but runs the VM itself in a separate pool of specialised hardware. "When your application invokes Java, it invokes our VM rather than the one it would usually invoke," says Khan. "Our JVM keeps the OS-dependent activity on the existing server, but moves the entire Java VM — class libraries, methods, bytecodes, bit compilers, all of that — over to the Azul appliance."

This requires a configuration change on the existing application server. So far Azul has achieved certification with BEA and JBoss application servers, and is working on others. Azul is also working on .Net certification, which it hopes to deliver in 2006.

The appliance itself is based on a general-purpose 64-bit RISC chip called Vega, which has a few tweaks designed for VM workloads. First of all, the chip has 24 cores, important for Java applications, which tend to be highly multithreaded. "Compare that to the recent...

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...introduction of chips from traditional manufacturers, who are only now getting into two-way and four-way chips — we are already at 24-way in the first generation," says Azul UK managing director Syed Rizvi. Churning
The argument goes that such a system can deliver far more processing power for VM workloads, while taking up far less space and power — though of course it only makes sense for companies that have significant VM workloads to churn through.

Azul's appliances can currently put 16 chips into a single chassis, meaning 384 processor cores in about 11U of rack space, consuming 2.7kW of power, the company says. Three systems in a standard rack would add up to 1,250 cores, with 800GB of memory, consuming about 9kW.

"That is astoundingly low," says Khan. "Generally you'd get 40 or 80 CPU cores in one rack, and the best [power consumption] you could get today for that would be about 22kW to 25kW. With 1,250 cores, the CPU core-per-watt metric is about 37 times better than a typical Dell system."

Better utilisation
Besides taking up less space in the data centre, the network attached processing model has other benefits, such as better utilisation and simplified capacity planning. "It's like NAS — the benefits of it are so well understood now — people know if you are going to get storage for more than one or two people, you will really benefit from having shared storage," says Khan.

One of the assumptions Azul is making is that enterprises have such a massive VM workload that they're ready to invest in new ways of handling it. On paper, at least, this looks like a solid proposition. Service-oriented architectures are on the rise and are bringing with them a surge in VM applications — Gartner says that by 2008 more than 80 percent of new e-business applications will be based on VMs. The figure is already at 50 percent today, says Khan. Industry analysts such as RedMonk, however, say that only big companies will be likely to significantly benefit from Azul-style systems for now.

That hasn't stopped Azul from targeting the mid-range with its CentiCore platform. Announced in early November, CentiCore includes the 960 Compute Appliance with 96 processor cores, two Penguin Computing dual-core Linux servers, a Gigabit Ethernet switch and JBoss application server software.

Azul isn't alone in targeting ways to improve Java processing, which would seem to indicate a certain level of demand. BEA, for instance, in September introduced WebLogic Real Time Edition, which also takes aim at the problem of servers timing out to perform garbage collection. Real Time Edition reduces these pauses to a few milliseconds. A number of...

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...companies — Nazomi, Ajile and ARM among them — have developed Java acceleration hardware, albeit aimed at mobile phones.

Extreme multicore licensing
Azul is taking the current trend towards multicore chips to an extreme, but this brings its own problems — one of them being potentially outlandish software licensing costs. In the world of general-purpose processors, software makers such as Oracle have argued they are due higher fees if customers use chips with multiple cores, since the cores are having a direct impact on the benefit customers are getting from the software.

Ditto for application server vendors. Because the Azul system is running applications through a JVM proxy, both the general-purpose server and the Azul appliance have to be licensed for the application server. If each Vega core were viewed as a separate chip for licensing purposes, licensing costs for that 384-core Azul system would quickly consign it to the scrapheap.

No set way has really been arrived at to deal with this dilemma yet, but Azul says it is working on it, and has arrived at a bizarre but perhaps workable arrangement with BEA. The Azul system itself doesn't incur licence costs, but the server tapping into the pool is licensed at three times its normal fee. "Even though servers that become authorised to use the Azul compute pool can tap into virtually unlimited power, they only incur a per-CPU charge of 3x the traditional amount," according to a joint statement from the companies.

This is justified by using a "power station" analogy, with the Azul compute pool in the role of power station. "There is no utility metering at the power station level — the metering is done where the decision to use the power is made, at a house for example," the companies say.

"This simplifies things a lot for BEA," says Azul's Khan. "Otherwise they would have to worry about how to charge for a 384-core system."

Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff said the analogy doesn't completely make sense, but the arrangement could work. "If it's a bit unusual, it's obviously a scheme that both companies felt they could live with and which would be acceptable to their customers," Haff says in a recent research note. "And BEA avoided truly coming to grips with multicore licensing — which they may have seen as the biggest win of all."

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