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July 16, 2009

Cray Adds CX1 Variant to Entice First Time HPC Users

by Michael Feldman

Putting a Cray supercomputer in your office just got a lot cheaper. The company has unveiled a low-end derivative of its CX1 personal deskside system for high performance computing. Called the CX1-LC (for “Light Configuration”), the product has a starting price of less than $12,000, which is less than half the cost of the entry-level machine for the standard CX1 offering. The original CX1 was introduced last September, becoming Cray’s first “personal supercomputing” offering.

Unlike the standard CX1 line, which can support up to eight blades in a chassis, the LC variant, which some have nicknamed “Little Cray,” only supports a maximum of four compute blades. Since the dual-socket compute blades are built with quad-core Xeon 5500 series (Nehalem) processors, that still allows for a decent-sized small cluster. A maxed out LC configuration provides 32 cores (and 64 threads, thanks to Intel Hyper-Threading) per chassis.

In addition to the four dual-socket Nehalem blades, you can also include two non-compute blades (visualization, GPGPU or storage) into an LC system, since they are able to share the same power zone as the compute blades. The user can also add a redundant power supply and, if you want to connect a bunch of LCs together, an InfiniBand switch. Once you get beyond that, an upgrade kit can be purchased that turns the LC into a standard CX1. This can be done in the field since the chassis enclosure is the same for both system.

In conjunction with the LC, Cray has also introduced two new blades: a GigE blade aimed at the workstation user and a DDR InfiniBand blade for small clusters. The original blade for the CX1 came with QDR InfiniBand, but either of the GigE or DDR blades can now be used in a standard CX1 system. If your particular application set can deal with the sub-QDR performance of these lesser blades, you will be able to reduce your up-front cost.

From Cray’s point of view, one of the principal ideas behind offering a scaled down cluster is to get a foothold on the true entry level market for HPC — customers who do technical computing on workstations, and are looking to make the jump to HPC clusters. For many customers, the price differential from a workstation to a bottom-of-the-line $25,000 CX1 was probably too a wide a gap. “We had a lot of people who came to us wanting one, but it was little out of their price range,” explained Cray CEO Peter Ungaro, in a conversation this week with HPCwire.

The $12,000 entry price for a single-blade LC is more or less equivalent to a high end workstation, so Cray is expecting the new offering to get some traction in the workstation upgrade market. Of course, an entry level LC configuration is essentially equivalent to a dual-socket workstation, but with the capacity to expand to a mini-cluster.

The other markets for the LC, and for the CX1 line in general, are small and medium-size businesses who don’t have machine rooms or cluster administration people to support standard HPC setups, and larger organizations who want distributed HPC, rather than (or in addition to) a central HPC resource.

According to Ian Miller, who leads Cray’s Productivity and Solutions Group, the CX1 product line is already enjoying success with customers at national labs, universities, oil and gas firms, and a variety of government agencies, including the US Department of Defense. Although he couldn’t offer unit sales numbers on the CX1, Miller characterized the success of the product as based on “quite a lot of customers” both inside and outside the US. Cray has managed to attract more than 20 CX1 resellers worldwide to get the product into distribution. The latest partner is ClusterVision, an Amsterdam-based company that will sell the Cray deskside line throughout Europe. Overall, the distribution channel now covers more than 30 countries.

Like other personal HPC machines that have been introduced over the past 12 months, Cray is aiming for that out-of-the-box experience that people who are used to buying standalone workstations are looking for. Most of the personal supercomputers on the market today rely on GPU acceleration via an NVIDIA Tesla device to provide the majority of the compute horsepower. Cray provides a Tesla accelerator option as well, but a pure CPU cluster is the foundation of the CX1 line. “What we’re trying to do here is really emphasize ease-of-use and a very different value proposition than your standard cluster product,” said Miller. He added they’ve put a lot of effort into product packaging, as well as how the CX1 is purchased and delivered, to make the whole experience customer friendly.

Offering Microsoft’s Windows HPC Server as a cluster software platform is part of that effort to deliver ease-of-use. The folks at Cray are convinced that the Windows solution is a good fit for the CX1 line and the market segment it’s aimed at. They say about half of the CX1 systems sold to date have been configured with Windows HPC Server, with the other half going to the various Linux-based solutions offered on the machine. That Windows-to-Linux ratio is much higher than for HPC systems overall, where it’s believed that Linux still commands over 90 percent of the HPC market.

But the really good news for Cray is that, according to Miller’s estimate, more than 70 percent of the CX1 units sold to date have been into new accounts. If so, then Cray is truly expanding its customers beyond the elite national labs, supercomputing centers and government agencies that are the company’s loyal base. And maybe someday those CX1 customers will get an appetite for Cray’s higher end, and higher margin, supercomputers.