Ex-MSFT, AOL Exec Gounares Tackles Datacenter Software with Concurix

Microsoft veteran and former AOL chief technology officer Alex Gounares, who once served as Bill Gates’ top technical assistant, is back in the Seattle area and jumping into the startup scene again with Concurix, a still-forming company that plans to sell next-generation operating system software for big datacenters.

Concurix is still in the very early stages, which means there aren’t a lot of details available on the company’s makeup. Gounares, the company’s CEO, says the rest of the founding team is still being put together (but it’s already more than just him).

Kirkland, WA-based Concurix also has investors, but Gounares wouldn’t say who they were, or how much the company had in the bank.

“It’s too early to talk about specific numbers or customers or things like that,” says Gounares, who resigned from AOL at the end of February.

The target for Concurix, however, is pretty clear. As predicted by Moore’s Law, computer hardware has continued to grow ever more powerful. But several years ago, the ability to get more speed out of a given computer processor, or core, leveled off—the latest generations of cores simply ran too hot to operate faster.

Alex Gounares

To compensate, engineers began putting multiple cores on their chips, and the growth of computing power has continued to increase. Your everyday laptop now has a multi-core chip, while servers in big datacenters can already run chips with dozens of cores.

“The chip folks are on a roadmap to put more and more and more cores into their chips, because they can. Physics allows them, and it makes for better chips,” Gounares says. “The dilemma is, traditional software doesn’t scale very well on those cores.”

It’s not that modern operating systems can’t handle today’s multi-core chips, Gounares says. But they aren’t getting the peak efficiency out of the new designs. Take, for example, an advanced “many-core” chip with 64 cores.

“You’re not running 64 times faster than a single-core machine. Depending on the load, you might be running five times faster, 10 times faster. In really great cases, you might be running 20 times faster. But it’s extremely rare to get 64 times faster,” Gounares says. “Now imagine you could get something closer to that. Now, imagine you’re on a 200-core machine, a 1,000-core machine.”

The key to solving that problem, Gounares says, is actually going back in time a little bit. Certain approaches to building software, developed in the 1980s and `90s, were based on the principle of getting multiple computers to perform more efficiently together. But in the world of single-core chips that always kept getting stronger, that kind of coordination wasn’t really a prized asset.

With the rise of multi-core and many-core processing, however, things have come back around. Getting an operating system to be the traffic cop between this new type of massively powerful computer might take some fundamental rethinking.

“We’re now taking some of those old ideas from the `80s, and we think they’re now very, very applicable to modern chips,” Gounares says. (For a long, detailed look at this overall topic, check out this video from MIT’s Frans Kaashoek at a Microsoft Research event earlier this year.)

Gounares says there’s not really any direct competition for what Concurix is planning on the technical front. But it will compete in the market with VMWare, he says, because that company’s virtualization product is in the same price and performance category as Concurix is targeting.

“If you sort of think about the car-buying experience, VMWare is your standard sedan,” Gounares says. “And we’re going to be showing up with a little sports car, driven by a jet engine—and this jet engine happens to get 1,000 miles to the gallon.”

I guess we’ll have to wait and see about that part. I asked Gounares whether Concurix will use open-source technology, develop its own intellectual property, or license some existing IP, since the basic ideas have been around for awhile. He says it’ll basically be all of the above, a hybrid “commercial open-source” model.

“We anticipate being very big contributors to open source,” Gounares says. “At the same time, we are very much of the mindset of building a business here and we will be selling software, so there will be proprietary aspects to what we do.”

Gounares certainly has the kind of resume that could get a long look from investors and prospective employees, with a mixture of notable corporate posts sprinkled with some startup experience.

Among his jobs in a long career at Microsoft was a three-year stint in the early 2000s as Bill Gates’ top technology assistant. Known to many at the company as “AlexGo,” he also held vice president jobs in corporate strategy, advertising and commerce R&D, and the online division before leaving the company in 2010.

Gounares’ LinkedIn resume indicates he worked on a personal finance startup called FairDivvy for less than a year before the company was acquired by AOL. He served as AOL’s technology chief for about two years, based in Virginia (although his home is out here in the Seattle area).

Gounares also lists a few other new affiliations online, including serving as an operating advisor to GSharp Ventures, the new “venture equity” firm being started in Seattle by Voyager Capital co-founder Enrique Godreau and former Microsoft and Yahoo executive Luis Salazar.

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