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Hardware Today: SGI Server Snapshot

Monday Oct 24th 2005 by Drew Robb

Despite a smattering of entry-level offerings, SGI remains focused on meeting the needs of high-end users. Nowhere is this more clear than in its growing Altix line.

Although some vendors thrive on volume sales of commodity servers, SGI of Mountain View, Calif. has long been focused on meeting the unique needs of high-end users. The strategy has been largely successful. In fiscal year 2005, the vendor sold $730 million worth of goods and services, which is about 5 percent of the total market for technical and creative computer systems, according to IDC.

"Whether it's sharing images to aid in brain surgery, finding oil more efficiently, studying global climate, providing technologies for homeland security and defense, or enabling the transition from analog to digital broadcasting," says Bill Mannel, director of product marketing and management for SGI's Server and Platform Group, "SGI is dedicated to addressing the next class of challenges for scientific, engineering, and creative users.”

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SGI's work in the scientific arena earned it the No. 3 spot on the June 2005 Top 500 list. The 10,256-processor Altix supercomputer was built to help NASA study the formation of the galaxy. Four other scientific systems from SGI also placed in the Top 50. But a focus on the high end has not been at the expense of the low end. In July, SGI lowered the price thresholds for its entry-level servers with two new offerings. The Altix 330 Server starts below $7,000, and the InfiniteStorage S330 storage array is priced from $12,599.

"Along with growing popularity for high-density, commoditization has made cost a dominant selection factor when choosing low- to midrange-server and storage solutions," Mannel continues. "With its expanded portfolio, SGI has demonstrated that differentiation is not only possible in the commodity space, but it can be also intriguing to users who need far more than a low-cost solution."

The table below provides an overview of SGI's Altix line.


SGI Altix Servers

Server Line
Description
Processors
Processor Range
Supported Operating Systems
Pricing
Altix 3700 Bx2 For technical users seeking high performance with open-source computing, the 3700 combines the cost-effectiveness of clusters with the scalability and capabilities of a supercomputer. Intel Itanium 1.5 GHz, 4MB cache
1.6 GHz, 6MB cache
1.6 GHz, 9MB cache
SGI Advanced Linux Environment, SuSE Linux Enterprise Server (LES), and Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4 Starting around $100,000
Altix 1350 Cluster A full-featured integrated cluster that can support a demanding application mix in a multiuser environment Intel Itanium 1.6 GHz, 9MB cache
1.6 GHz, 6MB cache
1.5 GHz, 4MB cache
SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9 with Service Pack 1, SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9 with SGI ProPack 4, and Red Hat Enterprise Linux Advanced Server 4 Pricing varies by configuration
Altix 350 A scaled down (in both power and price) version of the Altix 3700, available in 1- to 32-processor configurations, delivers scalable 64-bit Linux to midrange customers and developers Intel Itanium 1.6 GHz, 9MB cache
1.6 GHz, 6MB cache
1.5 GHz, 4MB cache
SGI Advanced Linux Environment, SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9 with Service Pack 1, SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9 with SGI ProPack 4, and Red Hat Enterprise Linux Advanced Server 4 Starts at less than $16,000
Altix 330 An entry-level midrange server with a 1U form factor Intel Itanium 1.6 GHz, 6 MB cache
1.3 GHz, 3 MB cache
1.5 GHz, 4 MB cache
SGI Advanced Linux Environment, SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9 with Service Pack 1, SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9 with SGI ProPack 4, and Red Hat Enterprise Linux Advanced Server 4 Starts at a little over $7,000
Altix 1330 Factory-integrated cluster offers a large-node cluster option to complement the Altix line. Intel Itanium 1.6 GHz, 6 MB cache
1.3 GHz, 3 MB cache
1.5 GHz, 4 MB cache
SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9 with Service Pack 1, SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9 with SGI ProPack 4, and hRed Hat Enterprise Linux Advanced Server 4 Pricing varies by configuration

>> Those Intel-igent RASC-les

Intel-igent Design

The lower costs are due in part to a change of platform. The company is gradually dropping its Origin line of servers — which use MIPS processors and SGI's IRIX operating system — and replacing it with the Altix line, which are Itanium 64-bit based servers. Although SGI still offers Origin servers, primarily to its government customers, and will support them through the end of the decade, customer demand for standards-based products has shifted the OEM's focus to the Linux on the Altix server line.

"With so many customers moving to Linux and away from systems based on proprietary processor architectures, the time is right for SGI to broaden its market for Altix systems and InfiniteStorage solutions," says Warren Pratt, SGI senior vice president. "These solutions, packaged for today's cost-conscious consumers, deliver the kind of performance that many customers previously felt was out of their reach. At the same time, customers can protect their current open-systems solution investments by deploying servers and storage arrays built on industry standards and scalable to the height of today's computing ability."

This applies to its general-purpose servers as well as its storage devices. The Altix 330 is a 1U rackmounted server that scales from 1 to 16 Itanium processors per system. It has two drive bays for 146 GB (15K RPM) of SAS, 250 GB (7200 RPM) of SATA2, or 160 GB (7200 RPM) of SATA1 drives. For clustered computing, the Altix Hybrid Cluster adds 64-bit processing to traditional nodes, with prices starting at $3,200 for a dual-processor node. The InfiniteStorage S330 is designed to accompany the Altix 330 and can be used in a direct-attached storage (DAS) device, a network-attached storage (NAS) device, or a storage-area network (SAN) configuration. A single system scales up to 16.8 TB of storage using 42 400 GB disks and 7200 RPM SATA drives. The InfiniteStorage S330 comes in a 3U form factor with redundant hot-swappable drives, power supplies, fans, and controllers.

Although it has expanded its low-end offerings, SGI is continues to improve its high-performance computing offerings. Last fall it introduced the Altix 3700 Bx2, and it has since doubled the server's capacity from 256 to 512 processors per node. They come with up to 24 TB of addressable memory, have a 6.4 GB per second interconnect rate, and deliver more than 3 GB per second of sustained throughput. Units start at around $100,000.

And this week, SGI released two new products — the Altix 1330 Cluster and the InfiniteStorage NAS 330. The Altix 1330 provides the simplicity of large nodes for clustered applications. The devices use SGI's NUMAflex shared-memory architecture. Each node contains up to 16 Itanium processors and 128 GB of shared memory. The 16-way unit starts at less than $90,000.

The InfiniteStorage NAS 330 is a midrange NAS appliance designed for small and midsize workgroups. Prices start at $25,599 for a dual-processor unit with two network connections and 2.8 TB disk capacity. The unit can scale up to four processors, five network connections, and 16.8 TB of storage. The appliances offer more than 400 MB per second of throughput and come with either Gigabit Ethernet or 4 Gb FibreChannel connections.

Little RASC-les

In addition to the new servers themselves, in September SGI introduced Reconfigurable Application-Specific Computing (RASC) as a way to improve the performance, scalability, and bandwidth for data-intensive applications, such as oil and gas exploration, bioinformatics, medical imaging, and broadcast media. Such applications tend to run a limited set of routines that consume most of the compute time, so their performance is limited by the design of general-purpose processors.

To get around this bottleneck, programmable integrated circuits, called field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs), can be configured to run a specific application or perform a single task. This speeds up processing as much as one hundred-fold. The problem with using FPGAs, however, is the time and specialized expertise required to reprogram the processors. This has limited their use.

SGI's RASC is a combination of FPGA technology and a set of tools to ease the programming. These include an FPGA-aware version of the Gnu Debugger for simultaneously debugging application and the FPGA, an abstraction layer for serial or parallel FPGA scaling, and an API and core services library.

"Over the next few months, SGI will continue to expand its portfolio of high-performance solutions for mission-critical applications," says Mannel. "In particular, the company is focused on low to midrange solutions for a broader range of applications to enable the reseller and distributor channel more opportunities to sell SGI technology."

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