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IBM washes hands of IceCube storage project

Jo Maitland, Senior Executive Editor

IBM is seeking $15 million in venture funding to bankroll a spin-out company to commercialize its futuristic storage product, known as IceCube, according to engineers familiar with the plans.

IBM has quietly incorporated Seval Systems Inc., based in Palo Alto., Calif., to finish a project it started five years ago at its Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif. Winfried Wilcke, program director of IBM's Silicon Valley research division, has been named chief technology officer and acting CEO of Seval Systems.

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"The less I say about Seval at this point in time, the better it is … A spin-out is always a sensitive subject with so many stakeholders," Wilcke wrote in an email to SearchStorage.com. Seval has some seed funding, and Wilcke is on the road meeting venture capital firms to raise $15 million to build the company and bring the product to market. IBM is expected to be an OEM partner, although the company declined to comment for this story.

IceCube was originally conceived as a large, three-dimensional array or "cube" of compute and storage "bricks" packed into a dense Rubik's Cube-like structure. The prototype included a three-dimensional stack of eight-inch bricks, each filled with hard drives, network switches and processors. Back in 2002, IBM envisioned hundreds of these bricks stacked together to provide petabytes of capacity and huge amounts of compute power in a single system.

IceCube was also referred to as "Collective Intelligent Bricks" as the software was said to enable autonomic functions, such as the rerouting of information across all bricks when one brick failed. This scheme provided assurance against data loss, as well as high performance for large data sets because subsets of the data could be retrieved in parallel. Individual bricks were impaled on vertical pipes or rails that contained a water-cooling system. However, interior bricks, with no air circulation at all, proved difficult to keep cool, according to sources close to the project.

The cube design was eventually deemed "too risky," and the latest version is based on a standard two-dimensional server rack, allowing the bricks to be more easily replaced, said engineers familiar with the product, who asked to remain anonymous. It is still liquid cooled, has sixteen 10 Gbps links per brick (or terabytes per second network bandwidth) and is expected to start at about $50,000, growing to a multimillion dollar petabyte scale system.

From a technological perspective, the product has generated a huge buzz ever since IBM began talking about it, but it's unclear who would actually buy a system like this. According to reports on the Web, Wilcke has been seen cruising various broadcast and media conferences, leading some analysts to speculate that the product will be aimed at the video and streaming media market.

However, most analysts are skeptical of how such a product will be received by the industry. "It's not a standard architecture that a storage administrator could look at and say 'I get it,'" said John Webster, Principal IT advisor at Illuminata Inc. Furthermore, IBM has spent years developing it and is now cutting it loose. "If IBM has decided it's not right for them, you have to ask who it is right for?"