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August 20, 2009

SGI’s Personal Cluster: Lots of Options, Lots of Challenges

by John E. West

Earlier this month SGI announced its new CloudRack X2, a deskside (optionally rack-mountable) workgroup supercomputing solution aimed at the same crowd as Cray’s CX-1.

The CloudRack X2 uses Rackable’s server tray technology and packs nine trays (how many sockets you can get on those trays depends on the processors selected, more on that later) in a 14U chassis along with 2U for switches. Power supplies and an array of fans are in the back, and both are provisioned at the chassis, not tray, level. One of the features that Geoffrey Noer, senior director of product marketing at SGI, emphasized when I talked with him is the decision to pull the fans off the trays; this reduces the vibrations that can shorten the life of components like disk drives, and goes to the engineering effort that SGI has invested in the technologies surrounding the product.

You can get CloudRack X2 trays with two two-socket servers that have either Nehalems or 4- and 6-core Opterons, for a total of 144 Nehalem-cores or 216 Istanbul cores in a full 9-tray configuration. The Nehalems support up to 96 GB available on a tray (48 GB/socket), while the Opteron trays support up to 128 GB (64 GB/socket).

You can also opt for MicroSlice boards on the X2′s trays. In this case you’ll get three (for AMD Phenoms) or six (for Atoms or Athlons) motherboards on a single tray. No GPU-enabled configurations are available yet, but Noer did say they were coming “this quarter.” Connection options include 1 GbE and both DDR and QDR InfiniBand, and the Intel-based configurations are Intel Cluster Ready certified.
SGI CloudRack X2

SGI’s previous evolution of the CloudRack line (the C2) started the move to more standard rack footprints, and the CloudRack X2 takes that a step further. It uses an enclosure that mounts in standard 19-inch racks if you are buying a bunch, or you can just put wheels on one and park it beside your desk.

You can get your CloudRack X2 with Windows HPC Server 2008, SLES, and Red Hat, along with SGI’s Industrial Strength Linux Environment (ISLE). Targeting the rich variety of processors and operating systems that they offer is a product management challenge, but on the other hand, it does increase the chances that users may find a configuration that will support their favorite COTS application.

Regarding pricing, Noer says that the CloudRack X2 enclosure with two server trays has a US list price starting at $20,000. That only gets you six Athlon X2-based servers, twelve if you go for the Atoms (two MicroSlice trays). If you need more compute power, as you might if you were in the market for a personal supercomputer, the price goes up from there.

This puts the CloudRack X2 in the same price neighborhood as Cray’s CX-1, although in this market a few thousands of dollars matter, and the diversity of SGI’s processor options may make a difference with customers. Of course Cray isn’t the only company after this business. HP has the Cluster Platform Workgroup System, and NVIDIA is pushing its Personal Supercomputer concept. There is a growing amount of activity in this market, and what remains to be established is the degree to which customers are responding.

Another execution concern that SGI will have to manage is service and support for its new CloudRack offering, and developing a sales model that will create the potential for success without forcing the company to dramatically grow its sales staff. This will probably mean moving to a channel distribution model as Cray has done with its CX-1 line. This does let you manage fixed costs, but it also eats into profits and it takes a while to develop the channel.

Still, with a new product the one thing you know for sure is that no one will buy it if you don’t launch it. I put this one in the category of worth trying.