SGI adds high-density Bx2 system to supercomputer

Silicon Graphics has unveiled a new version of its Altix 3700 high-performance computer with a design that doubles the number of Itanium 2 processors that can fit into a single server.

Called the Altix 3700 Bx2, the system can be built out of as many as 32 eight-processor servers, which SGI calls "compute modules." The previous version of the Altix 3700 had only four processors. Initially, SGI will ship the Bx2 in configurations that allow one operating system to run on as many as 256 processors, but larger configurations are in the works, Jeff Greenwald, senior director of server product management and marketing with SGI.

Using SGI's NUMAflex memory architecture, the Bx2 will also support as much as 24T bytes of memory, making it one of the most powerful systems available on the market, according to Greenwald.

The supercomputer will be SGI's first to include a water cooling option for very large systems, and it will also use SGI's next-generation NUMAlink 4 technology to connect the system components. NUMAlink 4 is capable of transferring data at the rate of 6.4G bytes per second -- twice as fast as its predecessor, NUMAlink 3.

Some of SGI's customers are able to get around the number of processors they can use with a single operating system by experimenting with new, more powerful Altix architectures that are not yet on the market, he said. Today, SGI has a number of customers using larger versions of the system. The NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) 10,240-processor, multinode Columbia supercomputer, for example, includes a 2,048-processor Altix system.

NASA is also using an upcoming version of the Itanium 2 processor that has a larger, 9M byte, on-chip cache that has given engineers there a 30 percent to 40 percent performance boost over the current version of Itanium, said Richard Dracott, general manager for Intel's enterprise platform marketing and planning group.

The Altix systems are designed to support both the 9M byte version of Itanium 2, which is expected by year's end, as well as an upcoming dual-core Itanium processor, code-named Montecito, that is expected to ship next year, SGI said.

SGI plans to formally announce a 512-processor version of Altix "shortly," Greenwald said, and 1,024-processor and 2,048-processor versions will follow.

The Linux-based Altix has helped reverse the fortunes of SGI, which several years ago seemed on the verge of collapse following an ill-fated foray into the Windows market, said Addison Snell, research director with analyst company IDC.

"The Altix was first launched in January of 2002, and the adoption has really been fantastic," Snell said. "The most important thing for SGI to do quickly is recapture lots of market share in high-performance computing," he said. "They can get a lot of growth (by) going after customers that they have lost over the last five years."

SGI's ambitions for Altix are greater than that, however. The company is working with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and systems integrators to sell the systems in countries and businesses that are new to SGI, Greenwald said.

Customers have begun to use Altix to run new types of applications such as the Oracle database, he said.

Snell agreed that Altix had potential outside of the high-performance computing realm that forms the backbone of SGI's business. "The Altix system might be a very outstanding database server," he said. "The door is open, I think, for SGI to find an (OEM) partner of some sort who wants to private-label the Altix."

Pricing for the Altix 3700 Bx2 starts at US$275,000 for a 16-processor system.

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