No smoke, but plenty of mirrors

What do you get when you combine 60-year-old computer science with existing camera, telescope and laser technology? According to John Peers, CEO of Camas-based Lightfleet Inc., the answer is an entirely new way for computer components to communicate with each other.

Currently, the innards of a large, parallel-processing computer are essentially a two-dimensional network of components and hundreds of miles of tiny wires that connect each component with all the other components. Lightfleet proposes to change that with its patented Corowave technology.

Using lasers, mirrors and lenses, Corowave turns the inside of a computer into a three-dimensional “free space,” where all components can talk with all other components, all the time – without any wires. All messages are broadcast to all microprocessors, and each microprocessor picks out the data meant for it, via special addressing information.

“There’s no congestion,” said Peers. “You have continuous, full-speed communication.”

In addition, Peers said Corowave doesn’t draw as much power or generate as much heat as conventional computer designs. Chris Kruell, Lightfleet’s vice president of marketing, said that because data administrators must plan for the worst case scenario, when every single computer component is busy, they over-provision servers and networks. This, in turn, has dramatically increased electrical power usage, and has also increased the expense of keeping such systems cool enough to function.

“Companies are spending dollars on power and cooling that they don’t need to be spending,” said Kruell.

He estimated that Lightfleet’s new line of servers utilizing Corowave technology, scheduled to hit the market in 90 days, will allow companies to spend half of what they are currently spending on power and cooling; reduce power usage to 30 percent to 35 percent of current usage; reduce space requirements; and offer enhanced performance. If the product upholds these claims in the field, Lightfleet’s technology may take off in a big way, considering the following IT industry trends:

• IDC, an IT research firm, stated that customer demand for increased performance has caused the average server power draw to quadruple.

• IDC also stated that for every dollar spent on hardware, IT organizations spend $0.50 on power (a figure that has doubled in the last five years).

• Gartner Inc., another research firm, claims that in a few years, half of the world’s data centers will become obsolete due to power and space restrictions.

Todd Grant, CFO for Infinity Internet, an internet services provider that has its roots in Vancouver, confirms these trends.

“With regards to total power cost for 2007, I expect to see at least a 50 percent increase compared to 2006,” said Grant.  

He explained that as hardware vendors continue to squeeze more horsepower into the same amount of rack space, there is more heat generated, and companies like his must factor cooling costs into the capital and operational expenditure budgets.

A novel idea

Four years in development, Corowave technology is so unique that Peers said describing it was like “trying to describe TV in terms of radio.”  He stated that many people are stuck in the old modality and can’t envision something totally new.

Sir Arthur Clark, famous for writing the novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, once said that people react to a new idea by first saying “It can’t be done,” then “It probably can be done but why bother?” and finally, “I knew it was a good idea all along.”

Peers said that his firm had conquered the first step, and were “somewhere between #2 and #3.”

Some of the resistance, he said, is because the new approach to internal communication will require significant modifications to how computers are programmed. Right now, the determining question in microprocessor communication is “May I connect or send to you now?” With the Corowave approach, the determining question will become “Is this data for me? If not, disregard.”

Although Lightfleet’s first product will be a server featuring Corowave technology, Peers in no way sees the server industry as an ending point. Rather, it is merely an “immediate place to see benefits,” according to Peers, and it is an industry conservatively estimated to be worth $55 to $60 billion.

Beyond servers, the Corowave technology has application in any IT industry segment that stores or processes large amounts of data. Some examples include:

• telecommunication networks

• pattern matching (such as in fraud detection and biometric data identification)

• voice-operated call-in centers

• medical devices such as MRIs and CAT scans, and

• modeling and simulation.

For instance, Oregon State University’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences is very interested in trying out Lightfleet’s product on their climate modeling projects, which analyze huge amounts of data collected from an array of sensors.

Peers said that Corowave technology can scale upward – their current server uses 32 “nodes” or processing units, but 64 or more are possible; and it can scale downward to be used in portable devices that need low-power, fast-processing capabilities, such as an unmanned aircraft vehicle.

John Peers: Experienced at success

John Peers, CEO of Lightfleet, has more than 30 years’ experience in international business and technology. The Byte Shop, one of the first-ever successful chains of PC stores, was his creation. In 1982, Peers founded Novix Inc., a company that specialized in the design of high-speed microprocessors and software optimized for neural and massive parallel computing. He also sits on the boards of several high tech companies.

Lightfleet adds 40,000 square feet

Currently employing 55 people, Lightfleet expects to expand their employee base to 100 by December, maxing out the occupancy of their existing 23,000-square-foot building. Most of the new staff will be in operations – manufacturing, testing, quality control and burn-in. In preparation for this growth, they are building a new, three-story 40,000-square-foot building on the other side of the parking lot. Peers hopes it will be ready sometime in early 2008.

The company doesn’t need a huge manufacturing space because it uses the “Dell” business model.

“We have marvelous subcontractors” who make many of the pieces of the final product, said Peers. Then, at Lightfleet headquarters, the pieces are assembled in a “made to order” fashion.

And despite the seeming concentration on technology at Lightfleet, Peers hasn’t lost sight of the “human” aspect of running a company.

“It’s people – not technology – that makes a business,” said Peers. “If you stick with the basics of business, and solve problems with dignity and integrity, you will be rewarded with success.”