SGI takes Altix 3000 to 256 processors

Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI) on Wednesday began shipping a 256-processor version of its Altix 3000 supercomputer, and the company is readying a 512-processor product which it expects to begin shipping by year's end.

Previously, SGI's largest Altix 3000 system was able to run a single copy of Linux on as many as 64 processors, but the Mountain View, California, company has been working with beta users since last September in an effort to boost the Altix 3000's processor count. SGI's goal was originally 128 processors, but results from the beta program have turned out better than expected, said Jason Pettit, product line manager for the Altix 3000.

"Things went so well in the program that we were able to test even larger than 128 processors," he said "With this announcement, we'll be expanding the node size from 64 to 256 processors."

Clustered versions of the Altix 3000, which use more than one copy, or "system image," of Linux, will also be available, in configurations with four to 512 processors, SGI said. In May, the company plans to offer clustered versions of the Altix 3000 with as many as 1,024 processors.

Powered by Intel Corp.'s Itanium 2 processors, the Altix 3000 is fast approaching SGI's MIPS-based Origin 3000 as SGI's most scalable system. Because of limits in the way the Origin 3000 handles memory, SGI does not expect its proprietary system to handle more than the 512 processors it currently supports with a single system image, Pettit said.

The Altix 3000, by contrast, is expected to eventually scale up to 2,048 processors, and SGI is planning to offer its next-generation NUMAlink4 interconnect technology only on the Altix 3000, Pettit said. "Altix will have the technology leadership basically at the beginning of next year," he said.

The NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, is already experimenting with a 512-processor Altix 3000 system, Pettit said. And while this system presently uses 1 terabyte (1 trillion bytes) of memory, it could eventually support as much as 8 terabytes, he said.

Though Linux has proven popular on two- and four- way servers, interest in big iron Linux systems that can run one copy of Linux on a large number of processors is still in its infancy.

SGI will be hoping that its embrace of supercomputers based on Intel and Linux will help the struggling hardware maker. Companies in many of SGI's core markets -- energy, media, and the sciences, for example -- are re-evaluating the company as a potential supplier, and SGI hopes the power of the Altix 3000 as a research and development tool will give SGI a foot in the door with some new corporate accounts, said Pettit.

The fact that SGI is building such scalable systems using the more open Intel and Linux platform is "turning some heads," said John Enck, a research vice president with Gartner Inc. "They were pretty much perceived, with MIPS on their Irix operating system, to be on a dead-end path," he said. "They have all the technology elements correct. It's just a question of whether their go-to-market strategy can execute on all cylinders."

However, with Intel's 64-bit Itanium processor not receiving the widespread industry adoption once expected, SGI's decision to support Itanium may eventually expose it to increased competition from 32-bit system vendors, Erick said.

IBM Corp., for example, plans to ship a 32-processor x445 Xeon-based server later this year, and is contemplating a 64-processor system as well. "We think there's a lot of runway with Xeon," Tom Bradicich, IBM's chief technology officer for IBM's xSeries servers, said in an interview in January. "The architecture that we've established could actually go beyond 64-way."

"The question we're asking at this stage is, with this surge in desire around 32-bit processors, does that cut into (SGI's) space?" Erick said.

Pricing information for the new configurations of the Altix 3000 was not available.

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