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Sun expands supercomputer effort

The company is set to unveil Fire Link, a technology that joins its high-end servers with a single high-performance cluster.

Sun Microsystems will take a major step into supercomputing on Monday with the announcement of Fire Link, a technology that joins its high-end servers with a single high-performance cluster.

In earlier years, supercomputers were single, massive systems with vast amounts of memory. Since the mid-1990s, though, more and more have been built out of clusters of separate systems connected with high-speed links. At the extreme of this newer trend are "Beowulf" clusters, with dozens or hundreds of lower-powered Linux servers.

With its Sun Fire Link, the company now is joining IBM and Hewlett-Packard with an alternate approach, offering clusters made of a smaller number of higher-powered computers.

The Sun Fire Link technology, code-named Wildcat, can directly link two or three computers together, said Steve Perrenod, director of high-performance and technical computing at Sun. With the use of a Sun-designed switch, as many as eight computers can be interconnected.

Sun has shown more ambition than success with its supercomputer effort, though its presence on the Top500 list of the 500 most powerful supercomputers more than doubled from 37 systems in June 2002, to 88 this month.

The Sun Fire Link adds about 5 percent to the price paid for the systems. For example, a Sun Fire Link would cost about $1 million for a large cluster with $20 million worth of servers, Perrenod said.

Sun Fire Link works with Sun's three highest-end systems--the 24-processor Sun Fire 6800, the 52-processor Sun Fire 12K and the 106-processor Sun Fire 15K, Perrenod said.

With Monday's announcement, Sun joins a parade of companies announcing new supercomputer products to coincide with the SC2002 supercomputer show beginning Monday in Baltimore. Last week, IBM introduced its new p655 on Friday; Cray announced its new X1 Thursday; and SGI improved its top-end systems with the release of the Origin 3900.

Several of the new Sun Fire Link-powered systems appear on the latest Top 500 list, including the High Performance Computing Virtual Laboratory in Canada and another host of systems based in Cambridge University in England.

Computers in Beowulf clusters are linked with regular Ethernet network cards or special-purpose network cards from companies such as . The Sun Fire Link, in comparison, uses connections directly to the "backplane" of the Sun Fire system, the high-speed wiring that connects the systems processors together.

Using the backplane connection means shorter delays when sending messages from one part of the cluster to another, a way to avoid communication bottlenecks. However, such connections are more unusual and expensive.

The Sun Fire Link technology was developed partly through funding from the Energy Department's Advanced Simulation and Computing Path Forward program, part of a national effort to simulate nuclear weapons tests within computers, Perrenod said.

On Monday, Sun also will announce version 2.0 of its Capacity on Demand (COD) server feature, which allows customers to buy a system with more processors than are immediately needed, paying for the extra ones only when they're activated.

With the first version of Sun's COD program, customers could fire up extra processors, but had to switch them all active at the same time and pay a lump sum. With the second version, customers can activate new processors one by one, paying a smaller amount each time, said Chris Kruell, director of outbound marketing for Sun's enterprise system products.

The first version of COD, introduced in 1999, worked only with Sun's E10000 server. The new version works with Sun's 3800, 4800, 5800, 6800, 12K and 15K.

Though customers were eager for the improvements, the first version of capacity on demand was popular, with about 20 percent to 25 percent of E10000 customers using it, Kruell said.