Start-up Introduces a Technology First: The Personal Supercomputer

With US$12 million in funding and a consulting chief scientist from Los Alamos whose research field is efficient computing, high-performance networking and bioinformatics, two of Transmeta's co-founders have reinvented the technical workstation, coming up with a completely new kind of box that's actually a "Personal Cluster" or even a "Personal Supercomputer" - a widget that puts 12 nodes in the space of a classic desktop or 96 nodes in a knee-knocking deskside - both configurations playing to the emerging rage for commodity Linux clusters.

Sounds like a good idea. Which immediately makes it suspect. Why hasn't it been done it before?

See, two of Transmeta's co-founders have reinvented the technical workstation, which reached its apogee in the 80s and has been in decline ever since, nibbled to death by Microsoft and the PC.

The twosome set themselves up last year in Santa Clara, California as Orion Multisystems and quietly proceeded to design a completely new kind of box that's actually a "Personal Cluster" or even a "Personal Supercomputer" - a widget that puts 12 nodes in the space of a classic desktop or 96 nodes in a knee-knocking deskside - both configurations playing to the emerging rage for commodity Linux clusters.

And since heat would obviously be the paramount hurdle in such a thing - RISC was never even given a thought - they build it out of - you guessed it - low-power Transmeta Efficeon x86 chips, picked for their power efficiency per watt, the coming new sex symbol.

Right away there's bound to be whining that Transmeta chips were designed for ultra-small notebooks, not clusters, and that any outfit that's used them for anything else has been jinxed.

For its part, poor floundering Transmeta needs to ship every Efficeon chip it can.

Orion president and CEO Colin Hunter, an emulation expert and the guy who was responsible for Transmeta's Code Morphing software, claims he's not married to Transmeta and would have picked an Intel or AMD chip if their heat dissipation could match Efficion's cool.

See, the gating factor was that the Orion box had to plug into a standard wall outlet.

Anyway, the company plans to revisit the issue every six months though it may have to sacrifice density to use another chip.

Orion started on angel funding. And now that it's got betas out with such as the chi-chi National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC) and is about to start selling the boxes come the first of October, Battery Ventures has bellied up to the bar with a US$6 million investment, the lion's share of a US$7 million second round.

With the angel money that makes about US$12 million in funding so far.

Hunter won't discuss what he thinks it's going to take to get a new hardware venture off the ground these days, given the hostility to such things, or when Orion might break even or what size company he thinks he can build.

He's pretty confident though that the big OEMs will copy his stuff after they badmouth it for a while - little chance of them reselling it - they'll built their own. And from the tone of his conversation he apparently figures he'll wind up getting bought.

He thinks he's addressing a US$2.4 billion HPC departmental market, where 90% of cluster revenues come from.

He figures there are lots of engineering, scientific, financial and creative types who could save a lot of time running their projects on a Personal Cluster rather than waiting in line for their turn at the supercomputer or some motley collection of commodity PCs jerry-rigged into a homebrewed cluster. Hunter figures the Orion boxes are a natural for software development.

As for the difference between the PCs currently being used for workstations and a supercomputer, figure a factor of 1,000.

Orion's Cluster Workstation exploits parallelism, the successor to vector, SMP and massively parallel computing, and relies on standard parallel programming libraries like MPI, PVM and SGE. It's designed as a single computer. There is a single system board consisting of 12 nodes in the desktop model. The deskside model scales to 96 nodes using eight interconnected boards. Nodes are linked by gigabit Ethernet interconnects, boards by 10 gigabit Ethernet.

Both boxes are turnkey; a cluster is supposed to boot in a couple of minutes from a single system image. No special cooling is required. And there are none of the nasty dangling cables that give interior decorators apoplexy.

The 96-node Orion DS-96 deskside is supposed to be good for 300 gigaflops peak performance, 150 Gflops sustained, and can address 192GB of memory and 9.6TB of storage. It consumes no more than 1500 watts, which is about all an outlet can handle.

The DT-12 desktop model is supposed to be good for 36Gflops peak, 18 Gflops sustained, and can address 24GB of DDR SDRAM memory and a terabyte of internal disk storage. It consumes less than 220 watts and can scale to 48 nodes by latching four systems together.

Hunter described a node as being the size of a playing card and including the processor, an Ali chipset, an Intel giagabit Ethernet chip, a 2.5-inch hard drive and a DIMM slot good for 2GB of RAM.

The widgetry, which contract manufacturer Flextronics will be making, is supposed to run existing Linux cluster software without modification. Orion is using Red Hat's freebie Fedora Linux core 2, version 2.6.6 kernel with Orion drivers. There's also 2.4 kernel support.

Oh, yes, and there's a cluster video subsystem that provides cluster rendering on each node. Figure a 10 Gbit/s combining frame buffer with 4x DVI output so what you're got is a graphics workstation.

Latency works out to around 40 microseconds. Orion is already working on a next generation that's supposed to use a custom TCP/IP stack that cuts latency to 15 microseconds.

Orion has priced the desktop at roughly US$10,000 and the deskside at around US$100,000. The deskside won't be available until later in the fourth quarter.

Orion is still feeling out its distribution options.

It's got some boys selling direct and going after the specialty VARs who service such hot little niches as bioinformics and other medical segments. It's already got a bundling deal with BioTeam, a bio-IT consultant, and they've created the desktop Orion Workstation for Bioinformatics bundled with iNquiry software, a suite of 200 applications for life science researchers.

It's also formed a unique alliance with Wolfram Research to bundle its gridMathematica software on Orions, but how exactly they take those boxes to market is still being working out. Wolfram has never sold hardware before.

Orion is supporting 45 people. Its other co-founders include VP of applications Chris Hipp, whose vision kick started the first blade house RLX Technologies, which came to find out building blades out of Transmeta's Crusoe chip wasn't a starter, as well as VP of engineering Ed Kelly, a pre-IPO Sun Distinguished Engineer credited with the development of the Sun-4, Mbus, SparcStation, 64-bit Sparc and clusters. Linus Torvalds, the father of Linux, worked for Kelly at Transmeta. Wu-Chun Feng, a Los Alamos researcher in efficient computing, high-performance networking and bioinformatics, is Orion's consulting chief scientist.

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