SGI Intros Low-Cost Linux Server to Technical-Computing Market

Silicon Graphics has been struggling to regain its dominance in the high-performance, technical-computing market. Now, with the release of SGI Altix 350, a new Intel Itanium 2 and 64-bit Linux OS-based server, SGI is trying to make a major impact on the landscape of the US$2.6 billion midrange segment of this market.

The Altix 350 is built specifically for scientists, design engineers, researchers and other technical-computing users. In making the announcement about the new server, SGI said the Altix 350 server will deliver up to a 75 percent performance improvement over proprietary Unix servers from Sun, IBM and HP.

“The technical departmental computing segment has led high-performance computing (HPC) market growth through the first three quarters of 2003,” said Christopher Willard, vice president of research at IDC. “Historically, this segment has represented about 40 percent of revenues for the overall technical server market, and over 90 percent of system shipments.”

The combination of the Altix 350’s price point and scalability, said Willard, positions SGI to compete in the market and extends SGI’s product line to cover almost all price points in the overall HPC market.

Independent Scalability

“Customers for midrange departmental technical servers are looking for new solutions that are lower cost, more flexible and easily configurable — and which don’t lock them in to proprietary environments,” said Dave Parry, senior vice president and general manager of the server and platform group at SGI. “Our goal with Altix 350 is to take significant share of this important market segment from our competitors selling proprietary Unix systems.”

While most offerings in the technical-computing market are retrofitted general-purpose systems, the Altix 350 server is specifically built, according to SGI, to support the requirements of scientists and engineers who deal with heterogeneous workflows. The new Altix 350 servers are capable of independently scaling across processors, shared memory and I/O on a single, standard chassis with different expansion modules.

This means customers need to buy only the resources they actually need as their workloads change. Whereas competitors’ systems require different chassis and “forklift upgrades,” with limited features for each processor count, the Altix 350 architecture offers full scalability up to 16 processors on one building block.

In addition, Altix 350 clusters can scale out to thousands of processors using industry-standard interconnects like Gigabit Ethernet and Infiniband.

Industry Feedback

Since its introduction less than a year ago, the SGI Altix family has been adopted by several organizations in the life sciences and energy industries. Included among the Altix customers are Tata Motors, NASA Ames Research Center, the Dutch National Networking Center and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

“NASA has computational modeling requirements suitable for a spectrum of machines,” said Bob Ciotti, terascale applications lead at NASA Research Center. “There is clearly a need for systems in the middle range with better scaling characteristics than PC clusters yet costing much less per processor than supercomputing systems.”

“Our work requires us to find a midrange solution that provides excellent parallel and scalar performance, and we needed flexibility in making the whole system memory available to all processors,” said Jose Sanchez, professor of physical chemistry at The Molecular Sciences Institute at Spain’s University of Valencia.

“The Altix 350 server features a shared-memory architecture that works well for these applications, and the performance boost that we expect from the Intel Itanium 2 processors should make porting our applications and data to Linux a secondary consideration,” Sanchez said.

Global Shared Memory

Built on the same system architecture and optimized Linux environment as the Altix 3000 supercomputer line, the new Altix 350 system is, according to SGI, the industry’s first production-class Linux OS-based midrange server that is uniquely capable of scaling up to 16 processors using a global shared memory architecture.

SGI’s approach to global shared memory is designed to eliminate data-transfer overhead by providing a single memory address, allowing all processors to access all of the data in the system’s memory directly.

The Altix 350 supports shared memory up to 192 GB with as few as one processor. To simplify management and maximize system effectiveness, SGI also offers the SGI ProPack software that includes tools and libraries to help users solve data problems using Altix systems.

Powered by Intel Itanium 2 processors, the Altix 350 starts at $12,199. A four-processor configuration starts at $21,599, which establishes a price point of $5,400 per processor for a scalable midrange system.

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