Much has been made of how New Zealand's now-defunct participation in the prestigious Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio astronomy project would have resulted in amazing new IT innovators.
One of them is Nyriad in Cambridge, Waikato, billed as an "exascale software company specialising in advanced data storage solutions for big data and high-performance computing" and a "commercial spin-out from research on the Square Kilometre Array".
Indeed, the start-up is listed as a member of the NZ Alliance. This is a group of companies that hoped to take part in the SKA until the government said it wouldn't commit to the international treaty for the project last year.
NZ Alliance counts the Auckland University of Technology, service provider Catalyst IT, Oamaru-based Open Parallel and Auckland systems integrator Compucon as members.
Nyriad was set up by current chief executive Matthew Simmons, who started off as a loudspeaker repair person while young, and American and former Microsoftie Alex St John, who is well-known for his work on multimedia in the 1990s.
Private investors and the government NZVIF and grants have chipped in with millions for Nyriad to develop advanced high-performance computing technology; but how realistic is that a small Waikato startup could come up with the goods?
Governments and private companies in the United States, China and European Union put up hundreds of millions, even billions of dollars and massive resources including some of the best university researchers in the world to stay current in the supercomputer race.
Down the RABiD hole
Making sense of Nyriad's claims around its flagship "revolutionary" and "breakthrough" graphics card-based technology turned into a long and convoluted process.
It featured fascinating side-quests such as Simmons' past work on infrasound speakers to prevent avalanches and a solid-state heat-transfer system for Molten Salt nuclear reactors and geothermal energy.
Called Thermagenz, the large device would use an unnamed superconducting material that transfers heat 30,000 times better than silver.
There's also Nyriad's blockchain storage pilot for the government with Revera. That was meant to happen in 2017 but has now been put off until 2020 as the software "wasn't quite enterprise ready" according to a spokesperson for the IT services company.
New Zealand's Datacom is also working on a blockchain storage project with Nyriad but declined to elaborate on how that's going.
A key claim to fame for Nyriad is that it built the Radio Astronomy Block Device or RABiD storage device for the SKA precursor telescope, the Murchison Widefield Array in West Australia.
Nyriad was awarded a A$350,000 Catalyst Fund grant in 2017 by the former National minister of Science and Innovation, Paul Goldsmith, documents released under the Official Information Act show.
Another A$350,000 came from the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), a state government funded joint venture between Curtin University and the University of Western Australia.
SKA features heavily in the documents about Nyriad and ICRAR developing and testing "an operating system for managing enormous amounts of science data in real time", using MWA hardware and data.
Confusingly, an MBIE memo for the grant application talks about Nyriad and ICRAR collaborating on "the development and testing of a multi-mode parallel distributed storage solution that could form part of the operating system of the Square Kilometre Array".
Official documents are clear that that was the intention but: "MWA hardware has not been used to test Nyriad's technology," the director of the telescope, astrophysicist Melanie Johnston-Hollitt said.
"The Nyriad kit has never been connected to the MWA data flow," Johnston-Hollitt added.
What's more, the MWA never approved the funding application for the Nyriad and ICRAR work on the SKA precursor telescope, Johnston-Hollitt said.
"As the chair of the MWA board from 2014-2018, and then director from 2018 to now, I can tell you that the MWA board did not see this funding proposal, so never formally endorsed this as per the required policy," Johnston-Hollitt said.
"Furthermore, Curtin University is the MWA-lead organisation, and legal entity through which the MWA is run.
So, the Data Intensive Astronomy group at ICRAR-UWA were not in a position to unilaterally make claims of use of MWA for this project," she added.
MBIE notes that the work the government and ICRAR funded Nyriad to do is outside SKA's signal data processing (SDP) consortium.
A redacted paragraph in the application document says "there is no guarantee the resulting technology will be taken up".
The lure of the SKA was strong however, and MBIE nevertheless recommended that minister Goldsmith approve the Catalyst Fund grant application.
Where did the government-funded RABiD run?
At ICRAR, the collaboration with Nyriad is managed by the Data Intensive Astronomy team under professor Andreas Wicenec.
That's where RABiD, now called NSulate, can be found. It is not installed at the MWA.
At the DIA, Nsulate is a software block device for Linux distributions, running on a storage device that processes publicly available MWA data Wicenec said.
He added that the effort to integrate DIA's processing control framework DALiuge with Nsulate has been postponed "until after Nyriad can be sustained as a company".
As for Nyriad's operating system, Wicenec said it was "more an original aspiration than a current actual fact".
Nsulate works but has not lived up to performance and stability expectations according to an ICRAR report sent to the MBIE.
Open bugs listed include software crashes and, ironically for a system designed not to protect against it, data loss.
Simmons acknowledged that the existing version "was not architected for speed".
Tough times at Nyriad
A rewrite of Nsulate is in the works, and Simmons said this will be "a very performant product that also has real-time encryption and de-encryption [sic] built in". This is due to be released to select partners towards the end of the year, Simmons said.
The rebuild of Nsulate comes too late for Alex St John, who is no longer involved with the company, or the technology.
He chose to leave Nyriad in March, and sold his shares to other stakeholders in the company, and resigned as a director in August, Simmons says.
St John, however, indicated that his departure came as a surprise to him, but neither person provided a reason as to why the Nyriad co-founder left.
Despite promises to employ hundreds of engineers, Nyriad in March laid off its interns and some younger staff. On the Glassdoor workplace and salary review site, Nyriad staffers have posted anonymous reviews complaining about working six-day weeks with long hours.
Simmons said Nyriad is now looking at "emerging trends in edge computing, security, and the new types of flash memory technologies surfacing" for Nsulate, but where that new change of direction will take the company remains to be seen.
"We are all very passionate about what we are building, proud of the progress this company has made since March. With the support of our four board members and market entry partners we are confident our tech and product will be in market on our new timeline," Simmons said.
The company is holdings its AGM later today.