Hardware Today: HPC Server Snapshot

Monday Jan 10th 2005 by Drew Robb

We go off the beaten path and explore products from some of the HPC niche players -- NEC, Bull, and HP's AlphaServer division. We look at who's using these products and what's on their 2005 road maps.

Vast marketing budgets from the likes of Dell, Microsoft, and IBM ensure the behemoths take much of the server limelight, leaving high-performance computing (HPC) niche players, such as NEC and Bull, to receive scant coverage. Even a company like HP, which spends as much on marketing and public relations as a small country's GDP, hardly seems to give its AlphaServer line more than a mention. Yet, these platforms have a lot to offer and shouldn't be automatically bypassed.

This week, we'll take a look at HP's AlphaServers and offerings from NEC and Bull. We'll examine who's using them, what's new, and what can we expect in 2005?

Last Hurrah

AlphaServers remain a mainstay in many data centers. In fact, HP generates Alpha/OpenVMS-related revenues in excess of $2 billion annually. Alpha hardware alone comes to hundreds of millions a year. Not bad for a machine that some thought disappeared a decade ago.

Recent Server Snapshots

"People are still buying Alphas and will for some time to come," said Terry Shannon, an HPC consultant from Amarillo, Texas. "Alpha purchases are estimated to still be in the double-digit thousands of units sold each year."

The Alpha family is a collection of RISC-based 64-bit CPUs and computer systems originally developed by DEC in 1992. In the past 13 year, it has earned the reputation of being a highly reliable data center system.

According to Richard Smith, an Alpha Systems Division program manager at HP, AlphaServer's primary markets are telecom/wireless providers, scientific research firms, healthcare administrators, and financial institutions and markets. Alpha systems have a key presence in the majority of the world's stock exchanges and banks, electric utilities, universities, and governments. The Alpha/VMS combo, in fact, is used by half of Wall Street, 50 percent of the major telecom provider systems, and 80 percent of chip manufacturing fabs. AlphaServer customers include Commerzbank, International Securities Exchange, Veterans Administration, Dow Chemical, and Vodafone.

In the past few years, many upgrades have been made to AlphaServer.

Recent AlphaServer Upgrade Highlights

Alpha System Year Introduced Applications Packaging Options No. of Processors Clock Speed Memory Number of Disk Bays I/O Support
DS15 2003 Workgroup server and workstation Desktop, 3U, or rackmount 1 Alpha EV68, 1 GHz 0.5 to 4 GB ECC 2 4 64-bit/33 MHz slots or 2 64-bit/66 MHz slots
DS25 2002 Tower, 5U, or rackmount 1 or 2 Alpha EV68, 1 GHz 0.5 to 16 GB ECC 6 6x 64-bit PCI slots
ES45 2002 Departmental server Tower, pedestal, 8U, or rackmount 1 to 4 Alpha EV68 1.25 GHz 1 to 32 GB ECC 12 10x64-bit PCI slots
ES47 2003 Departmental server Tower, 4U to 8U, or rackmount 2 tower, 2 or 4 rack Alpha EV 7, 1 or 1.15 GHz 1 to 32 GB ECC 8 26 PCI0X slots, 6 PCI slots, 4 AGP 4X slots
ES80 2003 Departmental server Tower, 4U to 16U, and rackmount 2, 4, 6 or 8 Alpha EV7, 1 or 1.15 GHz 1 to 64 GB ECC 16 52 PCI-X slots, 12 PCI slots, 8 AGP 4X slots
GS1280 2003 Enterprise server 20U, rackmount to multiple racks 2 to 64 Alpha EV 7, 1.15 or 1.3 GHz 1 to 512 GB ECC 128 512 PCI-X slots, 192 PCI slots, 64 AGP 4X slots

"The biggest recent change occurred in August of 2004," said Smith. "We increased the speed of the EV7 processor to 1.3 GHz from 1.15 GHz for our GS1280, and to 1.15 GHz from 1.0 GHz for the AlphaServer ES47 and ES80."

These improvements, however, represent a last hurrah for AlphaServer. HP has no further plans to upgrade the line. According to Keith Parris, a disaster recovery specialist at HP, the company plans to continue selling new Alpha systems through 2006. That means the hardware will be supported through at least 2011, per HP's current policy.

Why is HP dumping such a workhorse HPC platform? For one thing, Alpha has always been a relatively high-end system. Those that know it seem to love it, but it has lost ground in the onslaught of less-expensive Wintel and Unix systems. The Intel Itanium 2 processor is now seen as a more viable alternative.So HP is gambling that making OpenVMS available on a more affordable platform will give the operating system, and in effect the server line, a new lease of life.

"The OpenVMS operating system is about to be introduced on Integrity (Itanium) systems," said Smith. "We are also about to introduce mixed clusters of Alpha and Integrity systems running the OpenVMS operating system." HP will soon be making an announcement about OpenVMS on Itanium 2, and a mixed cluster announcement is expected some time in February.

>> NEC and Bull

NEC and Neck

NEC's presence in HPC was most widely publicized with the 35 T/Flop Earth Simulator. This machine held the No. 1 slot on the Top500 list before being dethroned, first by NASA/SGI/Intel's Columbia system at 60 GFlOPS and then by an IBM POWER5-based cluster that does 70-80GFlops. NEC also has a significant HPC presence among Fortune 1000 enterprises, research institutions, and universities, according to Larry Sheffield, senior vice president of NEC's Solutions Platform Group.

"In June of 2004, NEC became the first major enterprise hardware manufacturer to offer an Itanium 2 processor-based blade with 64-bit computing power and four-times InfiniBand capabilities," said Sheffield.

NEC's primary product in this market is the Express5800/1020Ba blade server. It has dual Intel Itanium 2 processors, nine blades per chassis, and runs Red Hat Enterprise Linux. An Infiniband PCI-X Adapter is an option: It has a 10 Gb per second blade interconnect with support for up to eight logical interfaces to Gigabit Ethernet or Fiber Channel. Sheffield says the base price of the Express5800/1020Ba is $79,000. That includes the chassis and nine 2-way blades. Each blade has 2 GB of memory, 136 GB of hard drive storage, and redundant power. Installation, software, and maintenance are priced separately.

What about the future? NEC wasn't giving much away. It did, however, comment on its continuing support for the Linux platform. 'In 2005, look for NEC to become more involved with Linux clusters," said Sheffield.

No Bull

Like HP and NEC, Bull has also charged headlong into the Itanium 2 camp. Its NovaScale servers now run Itanium 2 processors, with a Level 3 cache up to 9 MB, as well as the low voltage version of Itanium 2 processors. The company hopes this will reinforce the Bull NovaScale presence in the scientific, technical, and business market segments. These go from 2-way up to 32-way systems and run mainly Windows and various Linux flavors.

The DAM (Military Application Department) of the CEA (the French Nuclear Power Agency) selected NovaScale as its platform for a 60 TFlop system. This supercomputer, named Tera10, will increase CEA Military Applications Department's present supercomputing power by a factor of 10. It is to be used for its Simulation Program, which guarantees the continuation of the French nuclear deterrent, following the cessation of nuclear testing.

Tera10 will integrate 544 NovaScale 6160 computing nodes, each of which will include eight Intel Montecito dual-core processors. The supercomputer will have 8,704 processors with 27 TB of core memory, and 54 NovaScale I/O servers will manage 1 PB of disk space with a sustained throughput of 100 GB/s. This machine will be fully deployed before the end of 2005.

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