Start Up Unveils a New Approach to Scalability

In most cases, scalable information systems are engineered by means of SMP or clustering. Now there’s a new approach from Times N Systems ( dubbed processor teaming.

The start-up firm is leveraging the best aspects of both technologies to deliver a single, scalable infrastructure for enterprise computing.

According to Times N officials, the processor teaming technology not only boasts an intelligent shared memory architecture, but can also extend SMP scalability to 128 processors -- with near linear performance in both processor- and I/O-bound tasks.

Many high-end SMP solutions -- such as the NUMA-Q architecture from IBM Corp. ( -- employ a nonuniform memory architecture to address problems of systemwide memory bus contention and overall memory bandwidth saturation.

Ted Scardamalia, chairman and president of Times N, says his company’s processor teaming technology improves on the relative inefficiency of clustering-based solutions and at the same time capitalizes on the proven programming model of SMP.

"If you have a cluster, it’s pretty easy to add processors to the cluster, but the overall efficiency is pretty bad. Even though your cluster has scaled, you’ve changed the programming model and the underlying application must also be cluster-aware," Scardamalia says. "What we’ve done is made a scalable machine that keeps the same programming model as an SMP-based system.

Scardamalia acknowledges, however, that organizations can’t expect to take a native SMP binary and run it unchanged on one of his company’s servers. "It’ll have to be recompiled," he concedes.

In Pentium-based SMP architectures, the single greatest bottleneck has been memory bandwidth. The original P6 bus that shipped with the venerable Pentium Pro microprocessor was limited to an aggregate bandwidth of 533 MBps; the 100-MHz system bus that debuted with later model Xeon processors raised the bar to more than 800 MBps.

But because an 800 MBps pipe begins to saturate in SMP configurations greater than four microprocessors, vendors developed several solutions to address this problem, such as Intel’s own Profusion eight-way chipset.

For its part, clustering has infinite processor and I/O scaling capabilities, but suffers from latency issues associated with the problem of communication between nodes.

With Times N's processor teaming architecture, a single machine -- a system running Windows NT Workstation, for example -- serves as a shared memory box for each of the nodes connected to it by means of Gigabit Ethernet Fibre. Each of the attached nodes, in turn, maintains its own local memory and I/O, only passing application-specific memory and I/O requests to the shared memory box.

In this schema, Scardamalia maintains, processor teaming maximizes available memory and I/O bandwidth and provides a scalable application infrastructure up to 128 processors.

"If you can build a memory structure that separates the truly shared data from the data that’s local or just never gets shared, you can remove a tremendous amount of data traffic from that bus," he explains.

Times N’s processor teaming technology will likely face competition from entrenched solutions such as IBM’s NUMA-Q, but it has the advantage of using both a standard memory architecture and supporting off-the-shelf hardware configurations.

It’s support of off-the-shelf hardware, in particular, may be one of the processor teaming’s strongest points, says Gordon Linoff, principal at Data Miners Inc. (, a data mining analysis firm.

"By lowering the price point for powerful systems, using commodity technology, and supporting off-the-shelf software packages, processor teaming allows companies to focus on what is most important -- understanding, serving, and broadening relationships with their customers," Linoff says.

Times N is expected to debut a beta version of its processor teaming technology running on Windows NT 4.0 this month. Company officials say a beta version of processor teaming running on Linux will follow in August, and that a complete system based on the technology and running on Windows NT 4.0, Linux, and Windows 2000 will ship in October.

Times N’s Scardamalia says his company is talking to major OEMs -- including Compaq Computer Corp. ( and Dell Computer Corp. ( -- about licensing the processor teaming technology. Times N is working with Oracle Corp. ( as part of an effort to port the latter’s database platform and applications to the processor teaming architecture.

Although he acknowledges that SMP- and clustering-based solutions like NUMA-Q have only had limited acceptance thus far, Rob Enderle, senior analyst at Giga Information Group (, says that if Times N delivers a solution that can scale on both off-the-shelf and high-end hardware configurations, it could be successful.

"Particularly as servers transition into the commodity appliances of the future, it’s going to be increasingly important that server manufacturers can differentiate with compelling new technologies running across a range of hardware," Enderle says. "This is one of those technologies, and it’s both interesting and compelling."