Supercomputer has local roots

Melbourne developers played an integral role in a new range of SGI supercomputers making their debut in the Extreme Linux roadshow touring Australian cities now.

The Altix 3700 and 3300 were announced earlier this year in the US and have made their debut in Australia with the Queensland Parallel Supercomputing Foundation (QPSF) taking one of the first orders -- two Altix Supercomputers. The two supercomputers incorporate a total of 80 processors.

Although the Altix system will sit alongside SGI’s other high-performance computing line, the Origin series, the two use different CPU modules and operating systems. The Origins run on MIPS processors and SGI's IRIX operating system. The Altix on the other hand, runs an Intel's Itanium 2 processor and Red Hat Linux version 7.2.

The Altix 3300 can be configured with a single node of between four and 12 Itanium 2 processors, while the Altix 3700 uses anywhere from 16 to 64 Itanium 2 processors in a node. Each node contains a single Linux operating system image and up to 512GBs of memory.

The Altix 3300, 4 processor system starts from about $82,000. An Altix 3700, 16 processor system starts from about $390,000.

Jan Silverman, senior vice president of marketing for SGI, described the product as a "coming of age" for Linux.

"We are moving Linux to where it has not been before [high performance computing],” he said.

While developers of SGI’s Altix system are spread across Melbourne, California and Minnesota in the US, the software behind the Altix system has a certain “Australian” flavour. Of the 40 local engineers in Melbourne – all of whom have contributed in some way to the open source development -- four have been working full time on Linux-related products for the past four to five years, said Ken McDonell, SGI's local engineering director.

"Altix has been a hugely collaborative thing. For example the (KBD) kernel debugger [debugger is part of the Linux kernel and provides a means of examining kernel memory and data structures while the system is operational] is entirely supported in Melbourne. There is no other place of expertise for that,” he said.

In addition, “the crash dump utility [Linux Kernel Crash Dump utility] we use in the event of a system failure to provide an image of the memory is also done in Melbourne."

According to McDonell, much of what has been developed in Melbourne and abroad has been based on common source code.

"So many of the projects we have engaged in – clustered file system (CXFS), XFS, the performance co-pilot -- are all examples of where we built IRIX and Linux products from the one code base. There is only one source tree for these products,” he said.

QPSF deputy CEO Dr Ian Atkinson said the foundation is already an SGI customer and uses several Origin computers. Nevertheless, the Altix was a major investment and in some ways a “gamble”, because it is a new technology, he said.

"In a sense, although the Linux software environment is not as mature as the IRIX software environment we think we get wins here because it is involved with open source software and because [Linux] is going to evolve," Atkinson said.

The QPSF mission is to increase Queensland’s innovative capacity through deployment and exploitation of high-performance computing and communications. Its members include the University of Queensland, James Cook University, Central Queensland University, Queensland University of Technology, Griffith University and the University of Southern Queensland. Research the new supercomputers will be used in will include tide modelling, marine engineering, salinity research and bioinformatics.

SGI is currently conducting an Altix roadshow around Australia. For more information on a show near you go to

* Howard Dahdah travelled to Melbourne for the first of the Extreme Linux tours as a guest of SGI.

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