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July 16, 2012

Intel Expands HPC Collection with Whamcloud Buy

Michael Feldman

Intel Corporation has acquired Whamcloud, a startup devoted to supporting the open source Lustre parallel file system and its user community. The deal marks the latest in a line of high performance computing acquisitions that Intel has made over the past few years to expand its HPC footprint.

Whamcloud was launched in July 2010, at a time when the Lustre technology and community were in turmoil. At that point, the Lustre IP, and more importantly, the Lustre brain trust (Peter Braam, Eric Barton, Robert Read, and others) were under the control of Oracle, which had inherited the technology and its principle developers when it acquired Sun Microsystems a year earlier.

Oracle, though, had little interest in the HPC user community, so many became worried that the technology and expertise would be set adrift under its new corporate masters. When former LLNL’er Brent Gorda came along and convinced Barton and Read to launch the Whamcloud venture, that marked the beginning of Lustre’s return to the HPC fold. Gorda became Whamcloud’s founding CEO, with Barton coming in as the CTO and Read filling the Principal Engineer role.

Over the past two years, Whamcloud has become one of the industry’s leading Lustre support vendors and had garnered a number of lucrative government contracts in that regard, including the recently announced exascale R&D project under the DOE. But now, at least some of Lustre’s future will once again depend on the good will of a large corporation.

The revelation of the acquisition was made quietly on Friday afternoon on Whamcloud’s own website http://www.whamcloud.com/news/intel-corporation-has-acquired-whamcloud/. So quietly in fact that Intel has not issued a press release on the deal, and is not offering much in the way of specifics, include the price it paid for the company. One can surmise it was not a huge amount (i.e., it was not a material acquisition), inasmuch as the deal did not have to go through government regulatory agencies for approval and no SEC filing was made.

Intel spokesman Jon Carvill did confirm that the entire Whamcloud team has joined Intel and will be working under the new High Performance Data Division (HPDD), which is part of newly established Datacenter Software Division. Gorda will take the reigns as the HPDD general manager.

As far as the general rationale for the acquisition, Carvill said Whamcloud will serve to “augment” its silicon portfolio with Lustre file system services. “At the end of the day, we think distributed parallel file systems are a key enabler for next-generation datacenters for HPC and the cloud,” he explained.

He also confirmed that Intel plans to continue supporting the Lustre code base under its open source framework, pointing out that the company recently became a member of OpenSFS, the non-profit consortium devoted to Lustre, specifically, and open scalable file systems, in general. “Ultimately, what it comes down to is we see scalable storage as critical to achieving exascale, and Lustre is an important technology to address this challenge,” said Carvill. “With the acquisition of Whamcloud, we’ve acquired key talent and technology to provide our customers with scalable storage solutions for HPC today, that will scale to exascale systems in the future.”

Access to exascale and other HPC technologies seems to be driving a number of Intel’s recent acquisitions including QLogic’s InfiniBand assets, Cray’s Aries interconnect, and further back, the parallel computing IP behind Cilk and RapidMind.
“Intel continues to assemble control over the puzzle pieces necessary for building optimized exascale systems,” said analyst Addison Snell, CEO of Intersect360 Research. “One direct effect is that Intel is positioned to be the prime vendor on exascale contracts, which would allow Intel Xeon, including Xeon Phi, processors to compete directly against bids based on IBM Power processors, in Blue Gene systems, and NVIDIA GPUs.”

If that’s the case, Intel’s HPC spending spree will likely continue for awhile, since the chipmaker is still lacking technology expertise in areas like HPC system software, cluster management tools, and even HPC system and storage hardware, if it’s interested in playing that game.

Beyond Intel’s exascale aspirations, Snell thinks the company is interested bringing more system functionality on-chip. “We’ve seen the beginnings of this with features like Integrated I/O,” he explained.” The acquisition of Whamcloud could offer Intel key knowledge in integrating Lustre or other parallel file system optimization into the on-chip I/O channel.”

That could eventually lead to markets beyond HPC, in particular, the enterprise storage arena and the burgeoning big data application space. And since those are higher volume markets than supercomputing, Intel would certainly be interested in any leverage it could achieve there.

In the meantime, it will be business as usual for current Whamcloud customers with service contracts. No mention, however, was made of Chroma, Whamcloud’s new Lustre management application designed to run atop generic storage clusters. In fact, at this point the company is not divulging any product plans associated with Whamcloud developers or the newly hatched High Performance Data Division. For that, we’ll just have to wait and see.

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