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September 21, 2009

SGI Makes Leap Into ‘Personal Supercomputing’

by Michael Feldman

SGI has launched a deskside HPC cluster product aimed at users looking for supercomputers they can call their own. The new product line, called Octane III, also marks the re-entry of the company into the high performance workstation space. Octane III takes up the mission of SGI’s Octane2 high performance workstation, which the company stopped selling in 2004.

According to Geoffrey Noer, senior director of product marketing at SGI, the idea behind this new offering is to fill the gap in the product portfolio below the CloudRack X2 workgroup cluster offering, which was introduced in August. That system tops out at 216 cores. Octane III stakes out the low end of the technical computing space, scaling from a single dual-socket workstation up to an 80-core cluster.

“We want this to be just as easy for a first-time user of a cluster who is used to a workstation to be able to step up to the extra performance of Octane III,” says Noer.

SGI’s move into mini-clusters parallels Cray’s entry into the market last year with the CX1. Like Cray’s machine, Octane III is aimed at technical computing users in need of more power than a workstation, but looking for the same sort of turnkey user experience. Pricing looks to be in the same general range. Cray’s minimally-configured CX1-LC starts at under $12,000, while SGI’s base configuration for the Octane III starts at $7,995. The idea is to give workstation users a comfortable path to HPC, and establish a larger base of users upon which to grow the market.

The Octane III is a not much larger than a big desktop unit. The pedestal enclosure asks for just 1-foot by 2-foot of floor space and a standard wall socket (or two in some configurations) to live peaceably in your office. Large front and rear fans are used to keep it running cool and “whisper” quiet. The general approach is similar to that of SGI’s CloudRack design, with server boards mounted onto slidable trays, and without individual power supplies.

The machines, all based on Intel CPUs, comes in four basic flavors: a graphics workstation (OC3-TY11), a Xeon 5500-based cluster (OC3-10TY12), a Xeon 3400-based cluster (not yet available), and an Intel Atom-based cluster (OC3-19DV1).

The graphics workstation comes with a single dual-socket, quad-core 5500 CPU and a choice of high-end NVIDIA GPUs: the Quadro FX1800, FX3800, FX4800, FX5800 for visualization, or the Tesla C1060 for GPGPU accelerated applications. Memory capacity tops out at 144 GB.

The Xeon 5500 model scales from 1 to 10 dual-socket nodes, yielding a top core count of 80, and a maximum memory capacity of 960 GB. The 3400-based cluster, when it becomes available, will scale up to 19 single-socket nodes, for a maximum core count of 76. The nodes can be hooked up by either GigE or InfiniBand (DDR or QDR) by way of an integrated Ethernet of InfiniBand switch. Pricing varies depending upon the configuration, but a fully populated enclosure with 10 dual-socket Intel Xeon L5520 processor nodes, 240GB of memory, and integrated GigE has a list price of $53,000.

The Atom-based cluster is the odd one out. SGI has been dabbling with the ultra-low-power processor as part of its “Molecule” server research project for about a year, but this is the first time the company has released an Atom-based product into the wild. The 1 to 8 watt chips are designed for netbook-class platforms, but manufacturers are attracted to the processor’s energy efficiency and low cost ($29 to $44) for other applications.

Noer says the main target application for their Atom personal clusters is code development for Internet services-type software that will eventually be deployed at scale. Here the developer is not concerned with performance of the development machine, but with the ability to support a parallel, distributed programming model. Presumably these Atom machines are going to be priced much lower than their Xeon counterparts, since the 1K unit pricing on Atoms is currently about 1/10 that of the cheapest Xeon parts.

Intel is probably none too pleased to see its low-cost chips co-mingling with its higher margin Xeons in the server market, but there’s not a whole lot it can do about it. SGI is now the second server maker (after Supermicro) to move Atom up the food chain.

Octane III comes standard with SUSE Linux (or Red Hat), SGI’s ProPack and ISLE cluster management, and Altair’s PBS Pro batch scheduler. The Xeon 5500-based cluster model can also be made Microsoft-friendly, with either Windows Server 2008 or Windows HPC Server 2008. More configuration options can be found at the Octane III Web page.

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