Bob Bishop: SGI looking for Altix OEMs

When the Top500 list of the world's most powerful computers was published on Monday, the 10,240 processor "Columbia" supercomputer that Silicon Graphics (SGI) recently built for NASA's (National Aeronautics and Space Administration's) Ames Research Center was the number-two system on the list. Columbia is a much-needed success for SGI, which has been struggling to reclaim customers lost during an ill-fated foray into the Windows market during the late 1990s. Since taking the reins of the company in 1999, Bob Bishop, an 18-year SGI veteran, has refocused SGI on its core technical markets, and bet the company's future on the three core technologies in its Altix line of servers: the Linux operating system, Intel's Itanium processor architecture, and SGI's own NUMAflex system design. With NUMAflex, SGI has been able to scale Linux to unprecedented levels.

Despite its remarkable technical achievements, SGI's future remains unclear. The industry has been slow to adopt the Itanium processor, and SGI has struggled to achieve profitability. Bishop called the company's most recent financial quarter, which saw SGI post a net loss of US$28 million, "disappointing," but in an interview with Robert McMillan, he discussed his company's future and how he plans to bring Altix to new markets and why he has confidence that Itanium, and not Advanced Micro Devices's rival Opteron processor, is the right microprocessor for Altix.

With your Altix systems, you have been able to build incredibly large shared-memory Linux servers. It seems that that kind of technology could be used in the commercial space, as well as the technical markets that SGI sells into. Why don't people typically use SGI machines for commercial applications like Oracle databases?

Of course commercial applications ultimately need something similar. Our approach to the commercial market will be through private labeling of our products. We're willing to have our machines flow into the commercial space, but we will do that through partners who will probably add their own application software, and their own support and their own label.

Can you name any partners that you're working with?

We are not at the point where we can name any partners. That would be up to them.

What kind of companies are you looking to sign deals with?

It would be people who are already in that space and are having some trouble managing as databases are getting larger. We just released TPC-H (Transaction Processing Performance Council Benchmark H) numbers, which were world record numbers, and that was with DB2, just as an example of what's coming.

How long until Altix is available to enterprise application users?

We now have six databases running on Altix. That includes Oracle, Informix, Sybase, Objectivity/DB, MySQL, and DB2. That was the first thing we did was get them all on. And now the second thing we're doing is approaching commercial computer companies who want large memory machine capability. So there will be systems rolling out as the channels come on board.

The reason we're doing this is we don't have people on the street to sell commercial applications. But the channel partners we are engaged with have all that knowledge. They have all that experience.

Would these channel partners be selling Itanium 2 Altix systems only, or would they be selling your MIPS-based Origin systems as well?

Yes, strictly the Itanium 2 Linux platform.

Hewlett-Packard recently stopped shipping Itanium 2 workstations, and certainly the chip hasn't sold as analysts had originally predicted. Doesn't that cause you some concern?

No. Not at all. In fact, we could have predicted that HP would pull out of the workstation business. This is not a workstation chip. This is a server chip, and I think the idea of trying to put that in a workstation was their folly.

Opteron, as a chip, is going to be a more common workstation chip. That's the workstation chip, along with the Xeon extended address chip. On servers, you need a total 64-bit environment. You need not only 64-bit addressing, you need a 64-bit operating system and all the 64-bit development tools. That's why Itanium is strong for us. It's got the high-end multidimensional package with it.

But there is a 64-bit Linux operating system option for Opteron, and more and more development tools are coming online. What do you think of it as a possible platform for SGI?

We have no interest in Opteron. We don't see ourselves being very focused on the workstation market. We are focused on the server space.

But obviously people are using it as a server platform.

They're trying to, but I think that is the weakness of Opteron. It's not as powerful as a server product because the entire 64-bit development environment is not there for it. When you only have one element, like addressing, that's not good enough for servers.

Now we all know that there are IA-32 (Intel Architecture 32) clustered servers out there as well, so you can make a clustered server out of Opteron. But you still haven't got full 64-bit.

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