SGI releases Linux supercomputer with Itanium processor

Silicon Graphics Inc.’s (SGI’s) new Altix 3000 machines are penguins on steroids, combining the Linux operating system with Intel Corp.’s Itanium 2 processor into a server that can scale up to 64 processors.

The Altix 3300 and Altix 3700 were announced by SGI Tuesday. Both systems use a standard version of Linux, whose widely used emblem is the penguin, compatible with Red Hat Inc.’s Linux version 7.2. The Altix 3300 can be configured with a single node of between four and 12 Itanium 2 processors, while the Altix 3700 uses anywhere from 16 to 64 Itanium 2 processors in a node.

Each node contains a single Linux operating system image and up to 512GB of memory. The Altix 3000 machines will be ideal for clustering, because SGI’s Numalink interconnect technology allows users to connect nodes and share memory across processors, said Jan Silverman, senior vice-president of marketing for SGI.

Numalink technology has been used in SGI’s Origin 3000 servers, and allows data to transfer back and forth almost instantaneously among clustered systems, SGI said. Distributed systems can pool their memory resources through this technology, greatly reducing the time needed to process a task, Silverman said.

For example, drug discovery companies could put their genomics databases into memory rather than storing them on disk, reducing the time needed to process analysis tasks from weeks to days, SGI said.

SGI will support clusters of up to 512 processors this year, and will allow users to build clusters beyond 1,000 processors next year, said Andy Senselau, product manager for the Altix 3000 family.

The Itanium 2 processor offers Altix users the ability to run 64-bit applications at high levels, SGI said, pointing to several positive benchmarking results for the Altix system using tests from SPEC (Standards Performance Evaluation Corp.) But users of 32-bit applications won’t be able to run those programs any faster than an ancient 356MHz processor could, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at research company Insight 64 in Saratoga, Calif.

“Anything used on a day-to-day basis that requires significant computational ability will need 64-bit adaptations,” he said. The Itanium 2 processor uses a different instruction set from that of RISC (reduced instruction set computing) processors from IBM Corp. or Sun Microsystems Inc., or older 32-bit server processors from Intel. This means users have to recompile their older applications to realize the performance benefits of the Itanium 2 processor.

The company’s target market of researchers and creative professionals has been clamouring for a Linux operating environment that will allow them to break free of their dependence of proprietary platforms, Silverman said.

However, SGI manufactures a line of proprietary systems, the Origin 3000 family, which comes with the company’s Irix operating system. The new Altix machines allow SGI to tap into the rapidly growing Linux market, while still offering the advanced features of Irix to those users will to pay a premium, Silverman said.

“Irix has application capability that isn’t present in Linux. People depend on the reliability and security features within Irix, and it’s not easy to put those features into Linux,” Silverman said.

The Altix system is a good bet for SGI, Brookwood said. “It allows them to pursue their proprietary systems with Irix, but still have an alternative” for customers who want an open-standard system, he said.

SGI is including a number of software programs with the Altix 3000 series for resource and data management. A tool kit for Linux developers will follow over the coming months, the Mountain View, Calif., company said.

The entry-level Altix 3300 server starts at US$70,176 with four processors and 32GB of memory. At the high-end, the Altix 3700 with 64 processors starts at US$1,129,262. Users can add components as required. The machines are available for purchase starting Tuesday, but delivery will take place some time in the first quarter, SGI said.