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Dell taps game box, Nvidia for supercomputing

How do you democratize high-performance computing? There's no better example than taking a game PC and turning it into a visual supercomputer.

The 'Stallion' Visualization Cluster
The 'Stallion' Visualization Cluster. Dell

Democratize IT. A banal catch phrase until you see off-the-shelf gaming boxes from PC maker Dell being used for visual supercomputing.

CEO Michael Dell showed the "Stallion" Visualization Cluster at the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) running on standard Dell XPS gaming machines during his keynote Tuesday at SC08, a conference in Austin, Texas, focused on high-performance computing. (The keynote was streamed over the Web.)

The Stallion "visualization wall" uses XPS boxes to power 30-inch Dell displays. "The largest display of its kind in the world, at 307 million pixels," Michael Dell said.

"Literally these are gaming systems. We just leverage what was going on the commodity technology market," said Kelly Gaither, associate director at TACC, speaking as part of Dell's keynote address.

Dell is also looking to Nvidia to democratize supercomputing and bring it down to the desktop. "Advances in graphics technology are actually creating some new opportunities in supercomputing," Dell said. "We announced today that we're extending our partnership with Nvidia to advance their CUDA architecture in Dell's precision workstations," he said.

"So this really is the supercomputer on your desk. Adding one (Nvidia) Tesla card to Dell Precision workstations delivers a theoretical performance of 1 teraflop," he said. "That's seven times higher than (a high-end) Thinking Machines (supercomputer) back in 1993." (A teraflop is one trillion floating point operations per second.)

Dell also announced Tuesday that it has teamed up with Intel and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) to build the Hyperion hyperscale computing environment at LLNL. The National Nuclear Security Administration's Advanced Simulation and Computing Program at the facility expects Hyperion to speed the development and reduce the cost of powerful high-performance computing clusters vital to U.S. Department of Energy and National Nuclear Security Administration missions, including climate change, and other global challenges.

"Hyperion is a test bed that will share those breakthroughs with the entire open-source community," Dell said.

Dell Precision workstation becomes supercomputer with Nvidia Telsa technology
Dell Precision workstation becomes supercomputer with Nvidia Telsa technology Dell

But Dell's big message was how mass-market and standard commercial computing technologies have invaded the supercomputing space. "429 of the top 500 supercomputers are based on the x86 architecture," Dell said, referring to the computing architecture being used in laptops and desktops today. "What you see here is some of the things from the commercial world in managing large data centers really penetrating very heavily (into high-performance computing)."

"Three years ago, using our blade chassis, we put 240 cores in a full-size 42U rack with 2.8GHz CPUs, and that was 1.3 teraflops of theoretical peak performance per rack. Today, we get 512 cores in a 42U rack with 3.3GHz CPUs, and that's 6.82 teraflops per rack," Dell said. ("U" is a unit of measure that describes the height of equipment used in a rack computer. Typically, 1U equals 1.75 inches.)

More addressable memory space--critical for high performance computing--will come with Intel's Nehalem processor, he said. Nehalem will support memory spaces of up to 1 terabyte (trillion bytes) of system memory, Dell said. Most PCs today support 4 gigabytes (billions of bytes).

In related news, Nvidia announced that Tokyo Institute of Technology (Tokyo Tech) will use Nvidia Tesla GPUs to boost the computational horsepower of Tokyo Tech's Tsubame supercomputer.

Through the addition of 170 Tesla S1070 1U systems, the supercomputer now delivers nearly 170 teraflops of theoretical peak performance, placing it among the world's Top 500 Supercomputers.

"Tokyo Tech is constantly investigating future computing platforms and it had become clear to us that to make the next major leap in performance, Tsubame had to adopt GPU computing technologies," said Satoshi Matsuoka, division director of the Global Scientific Information and Computing Center at Tokyo Tech in a statement.