SGI Launches Entry Woodcrest Xeon, Itanium Linux Supers
Published: June 26, 2006
by Timothy Prickett Morgan
Having tried to make a go of it solely as a maker of exotic NUMA-based supercomputer clusters based on Intel's Itanium architecture and the Linux operating system, struggling supercomputer maker Silicon Graphics today will launch its first Xeon-based machines, which will use Intel's new "Woodcrest" implementation of the low-power Core architecture. At the same time, SGI, which has been in bankruptcy protection since early May, is talking up the impending dual-core "Montecito" Itaniums, which will plug into the Altix 4700 blades and roughly double their performance and is launching a midrange Itanium box.
X86 and X64 clusters running Linux are utterly dominating the supercomputing landscaping, but SGI has been trying to peddle the technically more sophisticated NUMAflex interconnect, which allows thousands of Itanium processors to share a single memory space and which makes many applications run better than massively parallel clusters using cheap Xeons. While some customers definitely like what the Altix has to offer in terms of highly tuned Linux and a big memory space for applications to play around in--Jill Matzke, high-end server marketing manager at SGI, says that the company has a backlog of the current Altix 4700 blade-based machines that exceeds $100 million--the fact remains that a very large number of customers want to use Xeon-based or Opteron-based 1U and 2U servers and cluster them using MPI software and high-speed interconnection networks based on Gigabit Ethernet, 10G Ethernet, or InfiniBand. Time and time again, SGI has watched as its own customer base has chosen another vendor to build these low-cost clusters.
Impending bankruptcy has the effect of waking a vendor up a bit. According to Matzke, in the fourth quarter of last year, SGI started doing technical evaluations of Xeon and Opteron processors to create its own line of X64 servers. SGI has been a staunch supporter of Intel's Itanium, and it is no surprise that even after looking at the Opteron, SGI decided to wait for the new Woodcrest Xeons, announced today, to launch its X64 machines. With the Woodcrest chips, Intel has closed the performance and thermal gap with AMD's Opteron processors, and despite the rumors late last year--which were undoubtedly fueled by rumors of the development of the Altix XE Xeon-based servers--SGI has no intention of using Opterons in any of its machines, either the Altix 4700 high-end, shared memory blade machines, the midrange Altix 450s, or the new entry Altix XE machines. "We thought the Woodcrest chips were the right choice," explains Matzke. "Opteron-based machines are not currently planned, but we did evaluate Opterons when we developed the Altix XE product line."
That should kill that rumor. At least for now.
There are two models in the Altix XE line, and both are based on Intel motherboard that uses the "Blackford" chipset and the Woodcrest chip. Woodcrest is going to be interesting for HPC customers, says Matzke, because the chip can execute four floating point operations per core, so a single machine will be able to do 16 floating point operations per clock, and at 3 GHz, that is 48 gigaflops for a 1U machine. To put that into perspective, you can get over 2 teraflops of raw computing into a single standard 42U rack. This is twice the performance per clock of prior Xeon chips. And memory bandwidth is also a big deal. The Woodcrest chip uses a 1.33 GHz front side bus, and the Blackford chipset delivers 10.6 GB/sec of memory bandwidth per socket, too. This helps drive those flops.
The Altix XE210 is a 1U server that has two processor sockets, room for three 3.5-inch SATA drives, one 600-watt power supply, one PCI-X slot and one PCI-Express slot. A base machine with a single Woodcrest chip, 2 GB of main memory, and a 250 GB SATA drive will cost around $3,100. The Altix XE240 is a 2U rack-mounted server that uses a more scalable Blackford motherboard. This server can have up to five 3.5-inch SAS or SATA drives, and includes a SAS controller on the motherboard. It has redundant 750-watt power supplies, and has three PCI-X slots and two PCI-Express slows. These machines both support up to 32 GB of main memory. SGI says that the Altix XE210 will be used primarily as a compute node, and expects the Altix XE240 to be used as a cluster head node.
The servers currently support Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9 and will support Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4 in July. The future releases of these two Linuxes--SLES 10 and RHEL 5--will be supported when they become available. SGI will be selling these machines as part of pre-configured clusters, including Scali's Scali Manage 5.2 for cluster management, Altair's PBS Pro for workload management, the Intel MPI library and C++, and Fortran compilers, and Voltaire's InfiniBand drivers for SLES 9. SGI is offering its ProPack optimizations for Linux, which boost the performance of certain math routines, as well.
In addition to the Xeon-based machines, SGI is offering a cut-down version of the Altix 4700 "Tollhouse" Linux-Itanium machines, which were announced last November. The Altix 4700s have a blade design in terms of form factor, and they are unique in that they allow for the independent scaling of processors, memory, and I/O within a blade chassis. The Tollhouse Altix servers are based on the NUMAlink 4 interconnect, which SGI says is almost twice as fast as the RapidArray interconnect used in the Cray XD1 Linux-Opteron parallel supercomputer, and offers 60 percent more bandwidth per link. The difference between the Altix 4700s and the Altix 450s is scalability. The Altix 4700 scales from eight to 512 Itanium sockets (and up to 80 blades in a rack) and up to 6 TB of shared memory; it is based on a rack chassis that holds 10 blades. The new Altix 450 will scale from two to 38 sockets and offer up to 456 GB of shared memory; it is based on a rack chassis that can hold five blades. While the base Altix 4700 came with 16 Itanium processors and 2 GB of main memory for around $75,000, the Altix 450 has a much lower entry point, with a two-socket, four-core box using the dual-core Montecito Itaniums and 2 GB of memory per core costing under $15,000. "With the low-end of the HPC market being where the growth is, we think the Altix 450 will let us get more business," says Matzke.
The issue now, as far as SGI is concerned, is getting Montecito into the field, which should happen in about three weeks. "We are trying to get as many Montecitos as we can," says Matzke. And you can bet that the fact that SGO did not opt for Opterons is helping SGI get a few more Montecitos than it might otherwise have gotten.
So far, SGI has not decided to put X64-based blades into the Tollhouse chassis, but this probably makes sense further down the line. Customers would probably like to have an X64 architecture that scales like the Itanium one does. SGI is mum on the possibility.
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