Author: John C. Dvorak
Date: 09 Apr 2001
Source: Forbes (original HERE)
Chet Heath was known as a wild duck at IBM, an endearing term reserved for
free-thinking creative IBMers who actually made things happen at the $88
Heath, a 30-year veteran of IBM, quit to start
OmniCluster to promote an invention he
had been working on at IBM since 1989. But IBM refused to market the product.
Called the SlotServer 1000, it's a computer on a card that can save a company
from having to buy more expensive upgrades.
It can save a data center from having to physically expand its operations,
and saves money all around. Because it would obviously hurt sales of current
IBM offerings, the invention didn't fit into the corporate strategy.
The minuscule computer/server developed by Heath only requires 10 watts of
power and fits on a single half-sized PCI card. This device can inexpensively
double the speed at which a server can output Web pages. But the
computer-on-a-card, which will initially sell for just over $500, has all sorts
of other interesting uses, thanks to software developed by superstar coder Bart
Brooks and his team.
For example, the card can be used to create a versatile multiuser machine.
It has a built-in USB port, ethernet connection and SVGA graphics card. As a
result, you can easily hook a monitor, keyboard and mouse to any SlotServer
1000 card and have a complete independent workstation. According to OmniCluster
Chief Executive Christopher Fleck, it can produce as many so-called
zero-footprint computers as there are empty slots in any nearby system. And
each is immune to the activity of the other "computers," unlike software-based
While this idea is not entirely new, it appears that OmniCluster has the
right price and the right attitude towards universal compatibility. "I learned
a lesson from the Micro Channel experience at IBM." The Micro Channel designs
rolled out at IBM with its PS/2 machine in 1987 failed to become standards--no
thanks to IBM's onerous licensing policy at the time--and eventually
disappeared from the market.
In the company booth at the recent ISPCon trade show in Baltimore for owners
and operators of Internet service providers, they had one card stuffed into a
Sun Cobalt server. The Cobalt box was running Linux and serving Web pages, but
overseeing the system was the SlotServer card running Windows. The card worked
independently of the Cobalt, but could also monitor and control the Cobalt
while serving pages itself. This device is the best solution I've ever seen for
remote access maintenance, since any one of the SlotServer 1000 cards can act
as sniffer or spy or control mechanism for the rest of the system and for the
Heath is an interesting character. His most famous inventions at IBM
included the Micro Channel Architecture (MCA), probably one of the most
advanced computer architectures for small machines yet designed. It directly
led to the PCI bus, which is common today.
He is also responsible for most of the patents for plug-and-play technology.
Furthermore, he may be the only employee at IBM to have ever won the rare IBM
Corporate Technology Achievement award twice. He was presented with his second
award in June 2000, two months before he left IBM to become chief technology
officer for OmniCluster. He packed his bags and moved to Boca Raton, Fla.,
where the company is headquartered.
Heath's departure from IBM and the subsequent loss of other quality
employees may not mean much in the short run for IBM, but it may signal a
long-term problem if the company cannot keep other creative talent. Heath left
with a cadre of other IBMers such as Fleck, an executive responsible for
single-board computers and industrial computers and OmniCluster's CEO. IBM's
singleboard engineer Ken Honeycutt also joined the group.
Fleck and Heath negotiated a deal with IBM to obtain the technology that
Heath developed. Though IBM wasn't interested in selling it, Fleck was
confident he could. IBM got equity in OmniCluster in exchange for the buyout.
It also appears that IBM has agreed to a non-compete arrangement as part of the
deal. The arrangement, according to the principals, is secret. In addition to
IBM, other investors include HIG Ventures, CrossBow and Cenetec.
OmniCluster should do well, and if it impacts IBM, then IBM can always offer
to buy them out. "I wouldn't be adverse to it," says Heath. In the meantime, I
suspect this once-wild duck will be quacking all the way to the bank.