Christopher Hipp; developed powerful computer servers

By Ashlee Vance
New York Times / July 19, 2009
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NEW YORK - Christopher G. Hipp, whose groundbreaking work with a supercompact computer helped companies vastly increase their computer power in a business world that is demanding more and more of it, died Tuesday while cycling in Palo Alto, Calif. He was 47 and lived nearby in Redwood City.

Mr. Hipp, who was a semiprofessional cyclist, died after collapsing during a morning ride along Sand Hill Road, the well-known Silicon Valley thoroughfare lined by venture capital companies, said his partner of 15 years, Lorraine Sneed, who lived with Mr. Hipp.

She said an autopsy was being performed, adding that he had taken blood thinners to prevent clots and that it was thought he might have died of an embolism.

Mr. Hipp’s major technological contribution involved blade servers, which have become a popular computer workhorse for businesses in the past decade. The compact servers give companies substantially more computer power while using significantly less space, and some blade designs consume far less power than traditional servers.

The blade computers solved a host of problems for companies grappling with expanding computer centers. They made it possible to stack hundreds - rather than tens - of computers in a refrigerator-size case while greatly reducing the space-consuming cables that flow from servers.

Mr. Hipp established RLX Technologies in 2000 to capitalize on his blade designs. Attracted by the technology, IBM invested in RLX and began selling its servers. Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Sun Microsystems, and other companies scrambled to mimic the products as customers proved increasingly willing to pay more for the blades than standard servers.

The blade products have become one of the fastest-growing parts of the server market, generating $5.4 billion in sales last year, according to the research firm IDC. The technology industry, facing staggering energy costs, has started to favor the low-power designs Mr. Hipp promoted.

In Silicon Valley, he was also a sought-after consultant for many start-ups, displaying a rare ability to talk the same language as engineers, financiers, and executives.

“He was a visionary trying to figure out where the next industry innovation would come from and working with a variety of companies to make that happen,’’ said Mark Seager, head of advanced computing at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Away from technology, Mr. Hipp was a semiprofessional cyclist, winning races in Texas and California. On hearing of Mr. Hipp’s death while competing for another Tour de France title, Lance Armstrong issued a message of condolence Tuesday through Twitter.

Roger G. Worthington, a California lawyer who sponsored Mr. Hipp’s cycling team, Labor Power, said of Mr. Hipp, “He loved speed, power, and danger.’’

Born in Houston, Mr. Hipp grew up in Dallas and taught himself about computers after dropping out of college. He worked in graphics design during the 1980s and concluded that computers would revolutionize the industry.

In 1995, Mr. Hipp started a computer business, selling machines made by Silicon Graphics Inc., or SGI, to artists and companies. “On our first date, I got him by asking if he wanted to come see my SGI,’’ Sneed said.

He created RLX outside Houston. Hewlett-Packard bought the company in 2005. Mr. Hipp said he received less than $1 from the sale, because his shares had been diluted through many injections of venture capital financing. He often expressed disappointment at failing to cash in on his ideas.

Afterward, Mr. Hipp worked on building new forms of high-powered computers for scientists and engineers, most recently at D-Wave, a start-up based in Burnaby, British Columbia.

Besides Sneed, Mr. Hipp leaves his brother, Michael.