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Acquisition of the Week: DRC Computer Corporation

The acquisition beat goes on. DRC Computer Corporation, a maker of FPGA-based coprocessor accelerators, has been bought up by Security First, a company that offers data security/integrity products. The acquisition was closed last Friday and announced on Monday. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.

DRC has been around since 2004 and started shipping its FPGA-based reconfigurable coprocessors in 2006. The company is on its 3rd generation hardware. The latest DRC module, Accelium, uses Xilinx Virtex-5 FPGAs and plugs into a standard AMD Opteron Socket F slot, using HyperTransport to provide very low latency data transfers between the FPGA, the CPU, and on-board memory. The ability to reconfigure the FPGA hardware and fast on-board communication are the keys to its high performance as a coprocessor. Compared to software running on a CPU, an FPGA-based kernel can run hundreds of times faster.

The main application area for these coprocessors is HPC acceleration, where the highly parallel nature of the FPGA architecture makes it especially suitable. But because of the non-traditional programming model, which entails special development tools and languages, FPGAs never really took off in a big way in HPC. Despite that, DRC has been quietly gathering customers, and adding application expertise and software tools. In general, DRC has focused its efforts on financial services, security, Web companies and biomedical markets.

DRC received its startup funding from TopSpin Partners and Capital Valley Ventures (now Wavepoint Ventures). In April 2008, the company was voted the top business seeking funding in the VC Panel and Business Plan Contest at the Data Protection Summit. Despite that accolade, when it came time to do its B round of funding this year, investors came up short. According to DRC CEO and co-founder Larry Laurich, they got "tantalizingly close" to nailing down the money, but couldn't close the deal. That's not too surprising considering that a number of HPC vendors have succumbed to a shortfall in venture capital this year, the latest victims being SiCortex and Woven Systems.

DRC is looking to 2010 as a big year for revenue growth. But to get there, it needed to survive 2009. And without VC or private funding, DRC was forced to look elsewhere. As it turned out, a two-year business relationship with one its customers, Security First, saved the day. Laurich says a merger opportunity presented itself, and the fit turned out to be excellent. (And certainly preferable to closing up shop.) Coincidentally, the name of the company's savior was especially appropriate, given the financial circumstances of DRC.

Security First offers data protection solutions for military, government and commercial enterprise applications, and is using DRC products to accelerate those applications. The company's flagship product, SecureParser, provides both data security and high availability by integrating encryption technology with a form of bit-level data splitting (basically encrypting the data and then dividing it up). That's where the FPGAs come in. The algorithms that carry out the encryption and data splitting are very data-intensive and require a lot of compute cycles. FPGAs are well-suited for this type operation and DRC was able to help Security First develop the required software for the DRC hardware. Laurich believes there may be other opportunities with Security First customers for related computing applications.

What does Security First get out of it? For one, the company is able to keep a technology partner viable for the sake of its own products. Also, now that the relationship between the two companies is more intimate, it will presumably be easier to get the kind of close-in support that most application vendors would really prefer.

Despite any blurring of company lines, DRC will operate as an independent subsidiary under Security First. All DRC employees -- around two dozen -- were asked to stay and former CEO Laurich will head the new subsidiary as its president. From his perspective, it's going to be business as usual, so DRC will continue to pursue business opportunities in the HPC market and beyond.

DRC has developed a useful partnership with Cray, which offers the company's FPGA hardware on its latest XT5 supercomputing platform. Laurich says they have a number of end user customers via this relationship, but they can't reveal who they are due to the classified nature of the applications. "We can say we have applications that are just home runs," he told me. "They're getting 300x performance [compared to] a processor, and the customers are absolutely delighted."

DRC also does direct sales with end users in all its principal markets -- commercial, academic and government. Despite the meteoric rise in GPU computing, the company is seeing a lot of interest in reconfigurable computing acceleration in Europe and Asia, as well as in the US. The majority of DRC hardware is shipped in development systems using industry standard motherboards and enclosures. Because these modules are Socket F compatible, DRC is able to just plug its FPGA module into an AMD socket on any multiprocessor Opteron workstation or server.

At some point the company expects to offer an Intel-compatible product using the new QuickPath Interconnect (QPI), which would expand DRC's horizons significantly. Laurich says they came close to doing a port with Intel's older Front-Side Bus technology, but with QPI in the offing, they determined it was better to wait. At this point, they're not committed to a date, but are working closely with Intel on such a product. "It's in our roadmap," offered Laurich.

Some 2009 money may go toward the Intel-QPI effort, but overall DRC continues to put a lot of focus on the application side. Over the years, the company has developed in-house expertise in certain application domains, such as image filtering and data security, and is able to leverage that expertise with customers. DRC learned early on that most users are looking for turn-key-type solutions, and from a customer's point of view, FPGAs are far from a plug-and-play experience. "They want an easy button," explained Laurich. Now that the company has found a sheltered port in the economic storm, it can continue to execute its product strategy and hope for the return of better times.

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