New SGI Linux Server, Storage Chase Entry HPC Customers
by Timothy Prickett Morgan
Silicon Graphics this week unveiled new Linux-Itanium servers in its Altix server line and matching storage arrays in an effort to expand down into the entry high performance computing (HPC) market. Historically, SGI has been known for its Unix workstations and high-end NUMA clusters for supporting supercomputing workloads, and in recent years, the company has adopted Linux and Itanium in an effort to get on a more favorable price/performance curve. It has been a tough transition for SGI, and one that the company is not through yet.
The Altix 330 is a the smallest and cheapest supercomputer component that SGI has ever put into the HPC market, and the reason why it is doing so is simple: HPC customers who have become acquainted with Linux clusters using Gigabit Ethernet, Myrinet, Quadrics, and InfiniBand interconnections and open source clustering programs will not pay a big premium for the slightly different Altix alternative. The advent of the Altix 330, which spans from 1 to 16 Itanium processors in a single system image, and its companion InfiniteStorage S330 disk array is about increasing the size of the addressable market that SGI can reach with its product line. "Our strategy is to take the technology in the $7 million and the $700,000 Altix product lines and make them available in a $7,000 product," explains Jeff Greenwald, senior director of server marketing at SGI. He says that, roughly speaking, the HPC server market accounts for about $7 billion in server sales a year (there's another $7 billion to $8 billion in storage sales on top of this). Before the entry Altix 330 was announced this week, SGI was addressing about $4.5 billion of that $7 billion server market, and now that it has extended the Altix line down further by trimming it back both in terms of capability and price, Greenwald reckons that SGI has added another $2 billion to its addressable market.
While IBM gets a lot of headlines for the monster supercomputers it builds and SGI gets a fair number of big deals for big systems based on its relative size (as does rival Cray), Hewlett-Packard, through its acquisition of Compaq three years ago, dominates the entry and midrange HPC server market. IBM's Power4 and Power5 servers running AIX and Linux are seeing market share gains, too. Dell and Sun Microsystems are not yet players to the same degree, and obviously Cray is using a mix of its own and Opteron-Linux technology to take a slice of the pie.
A lot of HP's strength came from the two-way and four-way, rack-mounted AlphaServer products, which could be clustered in a sophisticated way using VMScluster on OpenVMS or TruCluster on Tru64 Unix. SGI's server architecture uses NUMA technology to provide clusters with a single memory space for applications to play in, providing the benefits of clustering relatively modest servers and the single memory space of a big, bad SMP box. Greenwald says that IBM is getting traction in the HPC space, but that HP-UX and AIX are losing ground in the HPC space with each passing quarter. Linux is already the dominant platform at many government and academic research facilities and in industries like oil and gas; Unix still has a big following among pharmaceutical companies and auto makers, but the pressure is on.
In the entry HPC server market, the sweet spot for a server is from two to four processors and with from 4 GB to 8 GB per processor, and such entry machines are aimed at departments that want to have their own baby supercomputers as well as at the myriad HPC application software providers who do not want to spend big bucks on development systems. This sweet spot is exactly where the Altix 330 server is aimed. The server is a rack-mounted, 1U box that holds up to two Itanium 2 processors and up to 16 GB of main memory. The Altix 330 has a single PCI-X slot and has an external I/O chassis that provides and additional eight PCI-X slots. Up to eight Altix 330s can be linked together into a shared memory cluster using SGI's NUMAlink interconnect, providing up to 128 GB of memory for applications to play in. The price of the Altix 330 ranges from $7,000 to an entry box up to about $150,000 for a 16-processor system. The Altix 350, which was announced in January 2004, comes in a 2U, two-processor system that can expand up to 32 processors using a ring NUMAlink topology and up to 384 GB of shared memory. SGI also shares a clustered version of these Altix 350s using InfiniBand and Gigabit Ethernet to connect the nodes called the Altix 1350. The big Altix box is the Altix 3700, which spans from 16 to 512 Itaniums per Linux operating system image and is based entirely on the NUMAlink interconnect; the Altix 3700 offers up to 6 TB of share memory.
Greenwald says that the Altix 330 is priced at about a 20 percent discount on a dollars per flops basis compared with the Altix 350 midrange Linux servers that SGI announced in January 2004. "The reality is that we have to be a price/performance leader," says Greenwald. "The same customer that would not spend $70,000 on a midrange system when they can spend $50,000 on an inferior Linux solution will spend $7,000 on a superior Linux server when they could spend $5,000 on a regular Linux server because of the scalability and shared memory benefits we are offering."
SGI's success with the Altix 350 that was announced 18 months ago is what has given the company the gumption to go even lower in the HPC server limbo dance, according to Greenwald. While he cannot be specific because of the always-convenience excuse of the "quiet period," Greenwald says that SGO has sold over 1,500 Altix systems to date, and that "a lot of them" were based on Altix 350s. He said that these machines demonstrated that SGI could double or triple system volumes by going after the midrange HPC market, and the company is hoping to repeat this trick as it launches the Altix 330s. Having a lower-cost, entry HPC server also means that the hundreds of SGO channel partners worldwide have a much more suitable entry server to sell to new customers and application developers. Right now, depending on the quarter, SGI's sales force is booking 60 to 70 percent of the revenue it brings in, and over time it wants to have the channel push this much kit while maintaining its own sales levels even as it decreases SGI's share (relative to resellers) of the overall SGI pie.
The InfiniteStorage S330 array is part of this entry HPC strategy, too, says Laura Shepherd, senior director of storage marketing at SGI. She says that the midrange and high-end InfiniteStorage storage arrays, which have entry price points of tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars, are tough for SGI's channel partners to sell into new accounts. They wanted a box that cost under $20,000. The entry-level configuration of the S330 comes with one or two Serial ATA disk controllers and 7 or 14 400 GB, 7200 RPM SATA disk drives. A base unit with 2.8 TB of storage capacity costs $12,599. Customers can add up to two storage enclosures to this array that boost maximum capacity to 16.8 TB.
When the Altix 350 was announced, SGI said that the typical HPC site administrator has about $25,000 a quarter in discretionary spending. At the time, a four-processor Altix 350 node was priced under this limit, and that was not a coincidence. It is similarly not a coincidence that the cost of an Altix 330 plus an InfiniteStorage S330 array is under that same price. SGI has figured out that it can help customers slowly build up a fairly big HPC box by staying under the budgetary radar.