Dell and Cray team on power computing

Dell Computer Corp. is not the first company that comes into most users’ minds when talking about supercomputers, but the company launched a new server clustering program Monday and a partnership with Cray Inc. to strengthen its position among vendors selling large groups of networked computers.

IBM Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co., and Silicon Graphics Inc. top the sales charts as the world’s leading supercomputer companies, selling hundreds of servers to organizations that need to pour through large amounts of data and do complex calculations, according to the latest Top 500 rankings, a semi-annual ranking of supercomputers in use worldwide. A number of industries from the telecommunications sector to aerospace pay millions to harness the power of these tightly linked computers.

While Dell can lay claim to only four supercomputing wins among the Top 500, the company plans to offer new pre-certified configurations of servers in an effort to beef up its share of the high performance market. It has started selling groups of eight, 16, 32 and 64 PowerEdge servers that can be clustered to work as one system. In addition, Cray, one of the traditional leaders in the supercomputer space, will offer users its software and services for Dell servers, as part of a separate OEM (original equipment manufacturer) agreement.

An eight-server cluster from Dell will start at US$75,000 with U.S. availability.

Dell has partnered with MPI Software Technology Inc. and Paralogic Inc. for the middleware and clustering software that will run on its systems. With the help of these two partners, Dell is targeting customers looking to set up clusters of 128 servers and under. The packages from Cray are aimed at clusters with more than 128 servers, said Karl Chen, director of enterprise software with Dell.

One customer already running a large cluster said Dell was able to move up from its roots on the low end and handle setting up a more complex network well.

Sandia National Labs in Albuquerque, N.M., has linked 128 Dell workstations as part of a project to simulate how nuclear weapons will behave in the real world, said Milt Clauser, project leader for the visualization cluster at Sandia. The company used some homemade software along with other vendors’ applications to run the cluster, which ranks 103 on the Top 500 list. Since the data was taken for the latest Top 500 rankings, Sandia has added 44 Dell servers to the workstation cluster.

While Dell may not have a dominant position in high end computing, the company is well known for low-cost hardware, and this was a driving factor in Clauser’s decision to go with the company.

“Price was a major consideration,” Clauser said. “Dell has very good hardware and good prices for them.”

For larger clusters of computers, one analyst said the partnership with Cray will be key for Dell’s efforts to be seen as a viable high performance computing choice.

“Frankly, I think if Dell were to get into this space on their own, they would fall flat on their face,” said Tom Manter, research director at Aberdeen Group Inc. in Boston. “They realize that partnering with a company with name recognition will open doors for them.”

Even with Cray’s software on its side, Dell will likely need a few years before its secures a prominent place in the high end computing space, Manter said.

It may take Dell some time to solidify its spot with clustered computers, but the company sees this space as a key to pushing its hardware expertise farther, Chen said. The company believes its low cost hardware will give it an advantage over rivals like IBM and Sun.

Dell plans to add other components to its high performance computing strategy down the line, including storage packages and eventually its compact blade servers, which the company has yet to release.

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