Hardware Today: SGI Server Snapshot

by Drew Robb

A high performance, low footprint Linux-Itanium 2 combo gives SGI an edge in the high performance technical computing marketplace.

Several years ago, SGI was thought to be just another name about to be added to the list of high tech casualties that collapsed when the late '90s bubble burst. But unlike many that fell by the wayside, the company was founded on sound technical and business fundamentals. By going back to its routes and developing a 64-bit Linux platform, SGI has emerged as a solid niche player in a server marketplace where supercomputing is again hot.

SGI sells two primary server lines — Altix and Origin. Both use Itanium 2, 64-bit processors, with the former running on Linux and the latter on IRIX, a Unix variant.

"We focus on customers that value performance," said Jeffrey Greenwald, senior director of server marketing at SGI. "64 bit offers significantly better performance than 32-bit computing, much like a BMW or Ferrari as compared to a Buick."

The table below provides a 1,000-foot view of SGI's server lines.

SGI's Servers at a Glance

Server LineDescriptionProcessorsProcessor RangeOSPricing
SGI Altix 3000High performance in a small footprintIntel Itanium 21.3 GHz to 1.6 GHz, 3 MB and 9 MB cacheSGI Advanced Linux Environment, SUSE Linux Enterprise Server, Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4From $275,000 through the multimillion dollar range for terascale systems
SGI Altix 350A scaled down (in both power and price) version of the Altix 3000, available in 1 to 16 processor configurationsItanium 21 GHz to 1.8 GHzSGI Advanced Linux Environment, SUSE Linux Enterprise Server (LES), Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4$20,000 to $190,000
SGI Origin 30004 to 512 processors, with up to 1 TB of memoryMIPS600 MHz to 1000 MHzIRIX$20,000 to $8 million

>> Where Altix Shines

Where Altix Shines

SGI's core customers are in government, defense, science, research, manufacturing, and the media. Primarily, they use its products for applications that require very high performance, such as weather modeling, satellite image processing, simulation, genome modeling, and seismic processing.

Where Altix shines, in particular, is in the high-performance, low-footprint space. Altix servers offer impressive scalability (of processing, memory, and I/O) and can function as high-capability servers, departmental servers, database servers, or throughput clusters. The Altix was the first Linux-based server, for example, to demonstrate 512 CPUs in a single operating system image. Approximately 800 Altix systems have already been installed at about 400 customer sites worldwide.

According to IDC, SGI has an almost 5 percent share in a worldwide technical server marketplace that will be worth about $9 billion in 2004. Recent improvements to the Altix line could herald a jump in that percentage. Compared to the former top-of-the-line SGI model, the latest Altix 3700 Bx2 configuration doubles processor density and available bandwidth. It is built on Linux and Itanium 2 and boasts a 9 MB cache. Customers can pack 64 processors into a single rack, and it can scale to 256 Itanium 2 processors in a single system. Greenwald said this offers a price/performance gain of 50 percent over previous Altix models.

Another change is a ramp-up in available bandwidth between Altix racks. This is achieved via SGI's NUMAlink 4 interconnect technology, which produces a healthy 6.4 GB per second throughput. The company also offers an InfiniBand interconnect option.

In terms of memory, Altix uses a shared memory architecture called NUMAflex. Traditional clusters consist of concurrent systems, each with its own memory and operating system. These nodes communicate across an interconnect, which can sometimes result in cross-node bottlenecks. Coding may be called for in parallel code execution, but Altix overcomes this with its shared memory set up.

"All nodes operate on one large shared memory space that eliminates data passing between nodes," said Greenwald. "Big data sets, for example, can fit entirely in memory, and less memory per node is required."

The Altix 3000's $275,000 starting price puts it beyond the reach of many, however. For those who want superior performance at a more affordable price, SGI has the Altix 350. Also based on Linux and Itanium 2, the Altix 350 fits in the 1- to 16-processor spectrum. Models start at $20,000.

In addition to offering the Altix line, the company continues to offer its Origin 3000 line. Originally developed in 1997 on the IRIX operating system, customers can buy low-end systems for $20,000. At the top of the line, the price tag is close to $8 million. Origin systems range from 4- to 512-processor configurations and can have up to 1 TB of memory.

Eventually, though, this line will fall by the wayside, as SGI is investing its R&D effort in Linux and Itanium 2. According to Greenwald, however, the company is still selling plenty of Origin systems and plans to support it through 2011.

"IRIX offers real-time features that have not yet been ported to Linux," said Greenwald. "The next version of Altix, though, will include tools and code to accommodate the same real time functionality."

Betting on Itanium 2

SGI appears to have made a smart move when it pinned its future on the Itanium 2/Linux platform. According to projections from IDC, at the end of 2003, Windows accounted for 63 percent of server shipments, Linux had 16 percent, and Unix had 13 percent. Within four years, Windows and Unix are expected to drop to 60 percent and 8 percent respectively, while Linux will surge to 30 percent. Linux is expected to post similar gains in the high-performance server space.

Already, the SGI has an edge on its competitors in terms of performance benchmarking. NASA's new 10,240 processor Columbia supercomputer, installed by SGI at Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. achieved a world best 42.7 trillion calculations per second. Next week's column will feature an interview with NASA's advanced supercomputing chief Walt Brooks and look at how the Altix3700 Bx2 is performing in the real world.

In the meantime, SGI is pressing ahead to expand the scope of its technology. By late 2004, it plans on further scaling up the capabilities of the Altix 3000 by offering up to 49,152 GB of memory per supercluster, as well as 2,048 CPUs per supercluster and 256 processors per operating system image. In 2005, this will be stepped up to 196, 648 GB and 16,384 CPUs per supercluster, and 512 processors per operating system image.

This article was originally published on Tuesday Nov 9th 2004
Mobile Site | Full Site