SGI Uncloaks Linux Super Servers

The systems maker says its new Altix 3000 line shatters performance and scalability records.
Silicon Graphics (SGI) Tuesday revealed servers and software that make it possible for the Linux operating system to tackle massive computing chores.

The Mountain View, Calif. firm, known for its development of high-octane supercomputers for life sciences and government markets, unveiled its Altix 3000 family of servers and superclusters. The systems combine SGI's supercomputing architecture with Intel Itanium 2 processors and the Linux operating system to dash a number of scalability and performance records.

In fact, each node in the Altix 3000 series runs a single Linux operating system image with up to 64 Itanium 2 processors and 512GB of memory. Because several nodes use the SGI NUMAlink system interconnect fabric, data is transmitted up to 200 times faster than with conventional clustering methods, making it possible for the server to scale to hundreds and, ultimately, thousands of processors. How fast is the NUMAlink interconnect fabric? Data crosses over an SGI NUMAlink switch, round-trip, in as little as 50 nanoseconds, which is about as much time as it takes a beam of light to travel 50 feet.

What makes the Altix 3000 line so special? Most supercomputers require massive amounts of global shared memory to tackle complicated models, such as global climate prediction. Such tasks cannot be easily solved in smaller pieces. Altix 3000 superclusters work like supercomputers because they provide global shared memory across nodes and operating systems. The marriage of global shared memory and Linux creates great breakthrough opportunities for technical users on a standards-based platform.

The Altix 3000 family drew rave reviews from a number of computing experts.

"A few months ago the idea of Linux nodes beyond eight processors was only a dream," said Jon "maddog" Hall, president and executive director, Linux International. "By moving the performance of clustered memory to approach that of main memory, SGI has unlocked the doors to address whole new categories of problems that were either difficult or incredibly inefficient with the previous generation of standards-based clusters. Yet SGI did it with a standard set of programming interfaces."

Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff said some of the benchmarks were impressive, but that Altix 3000 is geared for very specific functions and that the news shouldn't be posed as a means of saying linux can scale to 64 processors 00 that just isn't true.

"Fundamentally, Linux has been looked at as a distributed OS," Haff said. "And that's fair. But the way SGI has used it with Altix shows that it can be used as a replacement for Unix in certain capacities. SGI has shown Linux can scale quite effectively in certain environments."

The Altix 3000 family will be available later in the first quarter of 2003 in both entry-level and scalable supercluster models. The entry-level server starts at $70,176 at four processors with up to 32GB of memory and scales to 12 processors and 96GB of memory. The supercluster model scales to hundreds of processors and over 1TB of memory today, with future scalability to 2,048 processors and 16TB of global shared memory. The king of the hill 64-processor system begins at $1,129,262.

SGI, who competes with the likes of Cray, IBM and HP in the supercomputing space, is taking a page out of Big Blue's book in terms of attractive price points: the firm said its Altix 3000 family offers roughly twice the performance of comparable IBM machines for half the price.

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