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17 February, 2011 - 14:27 By Tony Quested

Solarflare blossoms from seeds sown in Cambridge


A Business Weekly exclusive with Cambridge UK and California-based Solarflare – the leading provider of 10 Gigabit Ethernet (10GbE) server adapters and chips. It always looked a marriage made in heaven when Solarflare and Level 5 Networks – both early stage but cutting edge Ethernet pioneers – decided to join forces in April 2006.

The merger was driven by a common vision to deliver high-performance, cost-effective, 10 GbE standards-based Ethernet products that enable one network for compute, storage, and network traffic.

Significantly, the merged business was able to raise new funding from tech savvy investors, increasing the cash balance of the new company to over $100 million.

A number of US companies over the years have raided Cambridge technology and headed back across the Pond. Solarflare chose the opposite paradigm – to maintain a base in Cambridge and gain from the brain.

Level 5 Networks was founded in 2002 by engineers from AT&T Labs in Cambridge and the University’s Computer Lab – Steve Pope, Derek Roberts, David Riddoch, and David Clarke – under the auspices of Professor Andy Hopper. They initially operated the spin-out from Derek’s garden shed!

Amadeus Capital Partners, which is spearheaded in Cambridge by tech entrepreneur Hermann Hauser, spotted the potential and was an early investor. Charles Cotton, who took Virata to global greatness and an up-merger with Globespan, acted as CEO early on and remains a director.  Hermann and Andy remain involved at the Cambridge end.

Solarflare’s Cambridge R & D team is now more than two dozen engineers and growing, according to Bruce Tolley, Solarflare’s VP, Solutions and Outbound Marketing – a Californian and an alumnus of Cambridge University’s Selwyn College, who cut his tech teeth with Cisco Systems and 3Com.

The Cambridge-California shooting star is now ramping up operations on both sides of the Atlantic as it leverages a surge in demand for its new generation technologies.

In 2011, between 60 and 70 per cent of its revenues will come from its significantly upgraded network adapter cards, a technology step-change that owes much to the company’s Cambridge R & D team. And an IPO – possibly a double whammy on London and Wall Street – is on the not-too-distant horizon.

The company’s teams in Cambridge UK and Irvine, California look set to grow further as the company keeps pace with unprecedented market demand for its new-gen products.

Bruce felt that another fundamental reason Solarflare had been able to build capability and achieve such stunning commercial success was down to the long-term support of Oak Investment Partners. Again, Oak saw the potential of the technology and remained a rock of support through the lean times, determined to see that promise fulfilled.

According to Bruce, Solarflare hit paydirt with its major diversification push last year and the decision to sell a new generation of 10GbE ‘super-adapters.’

By December, Solarflare had announced the successful completion of a multi-vendor test using the STAC-M2™ Benchmark to measure the messaging performance of the solution stack. STAC-M2 measures the ability of a solution to handle real-time market data in a variety of configurations. In doing so, Solarflare identified and exploited the Holy Grail of the segment as far as significant customers were concerned – low latency.

The multi-vendor testing achieved very low mean latencies with very small standard deviations of the latency, also known as jitter. The configuration included tuning the server systems so that all interrupts and background processing tasks were run on a single dedicated CPU core.

The advance provided yet another endorsement that Solarflare’s solutions were robust, power-efficient, cost effective and easy to deploy. The product diversification also emphasised Solarflare as a technology for its time: Ready for primetime, Solarflare 10GbE products and OpenOnload™ make possible next-generation applications such as low-latency networking for market data applications, cloud computing, server virtualisation, and network convergence.

That’s a powerful hand to play as market validation inevitably leads to market traction. Solarflare has both in spades.

Solarflare’s adapters have proved their performance in testing conducted by Securities Technology Analysis Center (STAC) Research with Cisco and Arista switches, and Cisco and IBM servers. Solarflare chips can be found in switches, adapters and test equipment shipping from Dell, SMC Networks and others. The company also has significant partnerships with Arista Networks, Citrix, Cloudsoft, Solace Systems, SR Labs and VMware.

Put it all together and you have a more mature business with major revenue-generating capacity. That’s why by the end of 2011 the business will have completed a dramatic transformation, growing revenues from zero to multimillions.

Bruce said: “Moving from 100 per cent chips to a significant focus on our own branded 10GbE adapters has moved us into a different business module were we market directly to IT and data centre managers.

“We have built out brand new driver and software test & customer support infrastructures in Cambridge. We are witnessing the dawn of a whole new market segment for Solarflare involving deals with Fortune 50 customers, banks, trading houses and major equities exchanges using Solarflare for 24/7 support and reliability.

“We are also gaining traction with our 10GbE adapters at social media companies and other firms deploying virtualisation and at government labs building high performance compute (HPC) clusters for applications as diverse as modelling climate change to simulation controlled fusion reactions to generate greener electrical power.”

Dealing with Tier-1 customers demands the highest quality from Solarflare’s products. Historically, software testing has been a very labour intensive and lengthy process. Solarflare’s Cambridge office has invested heavily in developing leading-edge automation, allowing it to focus resources on development.

Bruce added:“But being a start-up cash is often very tight and you have to carefully nurse your resources. It’s all about building current revenue and delivering growth. But we are expanding headcount and diversifying products and while we are still privately owned, the goal is an IPO – in the next few years.

“The market hasn’t been right for a flotation, but the management team is in place and we are well placed when the market does prove conducive. Our investors are very long term in their approach so we are under no pressure.”

Like the very best tech players, Solarflare talks to major customers to understand their future needs and therefore has a clear roadmap for delivering its solutions as they evolve.

Bruce said: “The Fortune 50 companies of this world like to see a product roadmap. On our part, it is important that we continue to develop our technology offering – quad 10 gig adapters, onto 40 gig and even 100 gig which is where the customers want to go. Equally, we are well placed to take advantage of the big push to standardise protocols.”

Solarflare could also be central to advances in technology used on Wall Street in London and other trading centres and in cloud computing and virtualisation applications.

It has been well documented that Cisco believes 10 Gigabit Ethernet will become the foundation of messaging systems used in the financial markets. Cisco makes the Catalyst line of switches used by many Wall Street firms and Solarflare is in that technology loop with its OpenOnload technology – an open-source high-performance network stack for Linux.

OpenOnload performs network processing at user-level and is binary-compatible with existing applications that use TCP/UDP with BSD sockets.  Watch out for a future generation of synchronised clocks at the heart of  networks that enable Wall Street traders to instrument and measure the latency in their networks.

Time stamping can also be used to more regularly and efficiently audit the history of transactions – ending the often inefficient and messy paper trails currently endemic on many stock market trading floors. This technology will help tighten up compliance procedures in an increasingly regulated stock market trading environment.

Bruce says Solarflare’s Cambridge and Irvine teams work in a synergistic, integrated manner on development of technology upgrades. This globally focused, targeted approach to R & D can only boost the flow of cutting edge solutions in Solarflare’s increasingly powerful armoury.

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