Hardware Today — Smooth Sailing With Sun Microsystems

by Ben Freeman

Oregon's College of Oceanic Atmospheric Science first filled its data center with Sun systems 20 years ago. Today, the HPC infrastructure features Sun Fire E4900s, V250s, V440s, and V880s. We step inside the cabin to see where its fleet is headed.

Two weeks ago, our Sun Server Snapshot determined the vendor to be charting various courses. Like the previous snapshot, we predicted the outlook to be partly cloudy with a chance of success.

Last week, the vendor announced fiscal fourth-quarter earnings that presented an expected slight loss. But silver linings continue to abound. Microsoft's near $2 billion settlement with Sun brightens the outlook dramatically. A Sun spokesperson also touted preliminary Gartner data showing Sun's server shipments growing a market-leading 35 percent year-over-year for second quarter (based on the calendar year) compared to 24.6 percent for the whole market. That boost in volume is the likely payoff from Sun's increased low-end focus, and last week it was strengthened further with the addition of a new 40z 4-way Opteron servers and low-end Opteron workstations.

This week, Hardware Today focuses its depth scanners on Oregon State University, where Sun big iron anchors its College of Oceanic Atmospheric Sciences (COAS), on a deep sea mission "to help Oregonians, the nation, and the world respond to the challenges of a dynamic and changing Earth system."

Sun Fire E4900 Server
The Sun Fire E4900, the newest member of COAS' fleet.

Sun servers have kept COAS afloat since 1984. "It's been a fantastic relationship," Manager for Research Computing Chuck Sears told ServerWatch. More than 20 years ago, COAS mulled migrating its scientific machines from old Prime 750's with "big-old-honking disk packs," whose 45 pounds equaled 5 MB. Only two vendors met the college's criteria at the time: Apollo, which gave a "killer presentation," but "could not demonstrate, at all," and Sun, which gave a "mediocre presentation," but whose servers "worked flawlessly," Sears said.

COAS chose Sun, hoping it might one day correct its messaging. "We haven't looked back since," Sears glowed.

Meet the Fleet

COAS's heterogeneous "classical supercomputer environment" relies on Sun for more than 80 percent of its server needs, Sears estimates. From Sun Fire V250s, to 4-way V440s and 8-way V880s, COAS has kept its extensive high performance computing (HPC) code base running on SPARC clusters.

And since January 2004, COAS has become increasingly reliant on its new flagship, the UltraSPARC IV-based Sun Fire E4900. Moving from only 20 percent top efficiency compiling on its clustered systems, COAS now runs the E4900's Chip MultiThreading across 12 processors (24 cores), and 48 GB of RAM for a 1.6x increase in horsepower, without any "heavy lifting" in the code base. "This, if it can scale, is a Nirvana to us," Sears noted.

Now, "from a real-world perspective, instead of waiting 10 days for our [compiler] checkpoint to finish, we're waiting 5.3 days," Sears said. All that remains for COAS is to "hope that Sun continues up that architectural curve to build bigger building blocks, and we just scale appropriately."

Sears' satisfaction with the scale-up E4900 underscores some frustration with COAS' recent overreliance on scale-out clustering for its projects. "Over the last [few] years, we'd been spending more and more time trying to put together solutions from off the shelf commodity parts," which he said, resulted in "a miserable failure."

"As a user customer base, we have been lulled into the sense that we can actually get really inexpensive hardware glued together and solve our larger scale problems," he noted, "which, every day are needing to scale more and more," with the universally increasing need to "collect and analyze more data."

With that said, Sun's latest Opteron offerings have also found their way into COAS. As a Sun early adopter, the college has "been absolutely thrilled at what we are starting to see in [this] changing of the guard," in terms of strategy. The 2-way and 4-way Opteron systems seem great so far, Sears noted.

>> What's Next?

Bridge Over Troubled Waters

COAS relies on Sun's stalwart support organization to keep the relationship sailing smoothly. "If our support base were to have eroded anywhere down the road, in all these years, I think the overall relationship [we have with] Sun to build our solutions would have been gone a long time ago," Sears revealed.

"The service and support is just top-notch," he added, "and when Sun service personnel come in to service my equipment, it's [actually] Sun service," he noted, describing Sun's service looking sparkly in, "an industry when somebody comes in to service a unit; they get a pager call, and they've got to run off to the local supermarket to do their point of sale."

On the Horizon

Sears sees Sun's software toolbase as the "crown jewel" unifying its eclectic treasure pile of offerings down the road. "They have incredible bases of talent, and we're hoping to see a continued improvement in the tool base so we can use a unified set of tools to compile out and build business applications [across these disparate] architectures."

"What really brings it together is the software abstraction, which allows you to extract all of the great feature advances that are being made in the microprocessors, and that's really key with the Ultra IV moving forward," Sears said. Early tests of Solaris 10 seem to fit this bill, particularly its advanced partitioning features, and COAS is planning to upgrade the E4900 to Solaris 10 later this month.

Sears would also like to see Sun's integrated solutions expanded. "The harsh reality is, I have a business workflow to accomplish, and I need a sequence of building blocks that come together highly integrated to produce a solution," he said. He believes, however, "Sun is now in a beautiful position" to accomplish this.

Integrated tools, Sears says, power a far better alternative than going to a discount superstore (like Wal-Mart, where Sun products can now be purchased) to purchase inexpensive commodity hardware that will then cost an arm and a leg to integrate. "The U.S. has been lulled into this false sense of economy in HPC and throughput computing. It's good to see that we're getting back to understanding the fundamental problem associated with hardware design," he said.

With loyal customers like COAS, Sun's the short-term forecast looks potentially bright — providing no one gets overextended and falls asleep at the helm.

This article was originally published on Monday Aug 2nd 2004
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