Like Intel, Microsoft buys scraps of parallel-processing startup

Contact: John Abbott

Despite a fair bit of talk about how important it is to demystify the art of parallel programming now that multiple cores and threads have become mainstream in x86 computing platforms, the actual level of activity has been surprisingly low. Over the last few years we’ve identified no more than a dozen small development tools vendors active in this area – some of them focused on the high-performance computing (HPC) sector – that appeared to have some prospect of success. And the companies with the most at stake in seeing better performance levels from new-generation CPUs (notably Intel and Microsoft) don’t seem to have been working particularly hard on the problem, either.

Perhaps, however, that’s starting to change. True, the number of startups is declining rather than expanding, but as they fail their assets are being acquired by larger vendors. One of the first to go was PeakStream in June 2007, snagged by Google after raising $22m in VC funding. But Google had no interest in sharing what it had bought. It withdrew PeakStream’s commercial product and began using it internally to boost the performance of its own software. Just last month Intel – currently in the process or rolling out six- and eight-core microprocessors – revealed that it had quietly picked up two small companies: RapidMind and Cilk Arts. And now Microsoft has announced, equally quietly, that it has purchased the technology assets of Interactive Supercomputing (ISC).

ISC had raised around $18m in VC funding over its four years of life, from Ascent Venture Partners, CommonAngels, Flagship Ventures, Fletcher Spaght and Rock Maple Ventures. It’s perhaps a bit of a stretch to call what ISC was doing mainstream, since it was focused on the HPC market. Its Star-P development environment let users create software models on their desktops using off-the-shelf packages from which parallel code could be automatically generated. The company claimed it could cut months from software development lifecycles. But Microsoft is talking about integrating ISC’s technology into its own products and using it for desktop computing as well as clusters. ISC CEO Bill Rock will bring over a team of experts to join Microsoft’s New England Research & Development Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Microsoft says it will continue to support existing Star-P users but won’t continue to sell the product in its current form.