I walked into our first face-to-face meeting with SambaNova with mixed emotions. It had only been a few months since it was announced that Micron was investing in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) and we had already seen a lot of AI chip startups with bold claims but no real differentiation. However, SambaNova appeared to be different. They were developing a full-stack solution that was fully optimized for this new world of artificial intelligence and machine learning. To be sure, I invited one of our experts, Steve Pawlowski, to join me.
Steve is an industry veteran with a successful career at Intel, and now at Micron as head of the Advance Computing Solutions group. This group is Micron's special ops team for high performance computing. Steve has a way of getting right to the truth of a company's capabilities. As I met Steve on the sidewalk just outside the SambaNova office, he appeared to be quite skeptical. "Who are these guys?", he asked with a degree of suspicion.
SambaNova CEO, Rodrigo Liang, escorted us to a conference room just beyond the reception desk. After exchanging pleasantries, Rodrigo began to tell us his story. Rodrigo was head of ASIC development at Oracle/Sun Microsystems and was responsible for the SPARC processor. He ran a team of nearly 1,000 chip designers until he left the company in 2017 to join SambaNova.
His co-founders, Kunle Olukotun and Chris Re, are highly respected professors at Stanford. Kunle is known as the father of multi-core chips. He is currently Director of the Stanford Pervasive Parallelism Lab and founded Afara Websystems, which was acquired by Sun in 2002. Chris is a professor in the Department of Computer Science at Stanford working on next generation machine learning systems. He also co-founded Lattice.io, which was acquired by Apple in 2017.
Kunle and Chris were working together on software defined hardware when they realized a fundamental problem with existing compute architectures when it comes to artificial intelligence. CPUs and GPUs over optimize to protect the instruction while data cache is subservient to the instructions. This is a big deal since AI is all about the data and algorithms, not about program instructions.
The three founders have set out to deliver a full stack solution utilizing academia’s latest algorithms and providing the highest ease of use by automating the process of tuning and optimizing models, and using the best AI processor designed specifically for AI workloads, all packaged up in a tidy box with a bow.
For a company less than two years old, they have made an amazing amount of progress. Rodrigo was able to recruit top-talent from his former team which allowed them to quickly design the SambaNova AI processor and system.
As Steve and I walked away from our meeting, he turned to me and said, "I don't think they were exaggerating", referring to some of the bold claims made by one of SambaNova's investors that led to this meeting. Having had an opportunity to ask the hard questions, Steve now seemed quite hopeful at the prospect of being part of something special.