You've probably never heard of Pico Computing, and that's just fine.
The company works mostly undercover, out of the line of sight from most
citizens. It sounds like a story from a James Bond movie, but the
company's execution is real: they're in the business of cracking codes
digging into top secret transmissions and giving their customers the
ability to figure out what enemies are saying.
It's a modern day spy story, and there's great potential for Pico to
grow monumentally. The company was founded in 2004 in Seattle, and they
currently sell a "a desktop-size supercomputer aimed at the modern-day
equivalent of Bletchley Park's cipher-geeks: military and government
agencies that need to turn scrambled messages into actionable
intelligence, along with anyone else performing similar time-sensitive,
mathematically monstrous tasks." Only 15 people work there, and the
purpose of these guys is to use field programmable gate arrays, or
FPGAs, instead of more common chips from AMD or Intel to crack codes
more quickly using precise commands.
Programming these types of chips is extremely difficult, but once
they're locked in, they're extremely efficient at completing tasks.
They sell machines that range in cost from $400 (barely more than a
netbook!) to "hundreds of thousands of dollars." Last year the company
made $200,000 in profit, and they're currently "negotiating one
government contract that by itself would double sales in 2010." The
company also has to be really careful about who they sell to, but
there's a rigorous background check process that keeps these machines
from falling into the wrong hands.
The question here is how much longer can FPGAs stick around, with
typical CPUs becoming cheaper and faster. But with niche operations
like this still thriving from them, maybe there's hope yet for these
other arcane pieces of silicon.