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Itanium gets Linux supercomputer boost

Quadrics, which manufactures gear that links numerous Linux computers into a single supercomputer, has made its products compatible with systems built around Intel's Itanium 2 chip.

Quadrics, which manufactures gear that links numerous Linux computers into a single supercomputer, has made its products compatible with systems built around Intel's Itanium 2 chip.

The Bristol, England-based company now offers its network cards and software for Itanium 2 systems as well as for setups based on Intel's Xeon processor, the company said Wednesday. The added support for Xeon-based systems is a less dramatic shift since Xeons use the same software as the Pentium III chips Quadrics already supported.

Quadrics and competitor Myricom make the equipment used to set up high-speed, fast-response connections for this newer breed of supercomputers. Previously, Quadrics' focus has largely been on Hewlett-Packard's Tru64 Unix servers using the Alpha processor, but customers are now seeking the better number-crunching abilities of Itanium and Xeon chips.

The move is small victory in Intel's long-running campaign to build a complete set of computing technology around the high-end Itanium family, a dramatic departure from its mainstream Pentium, Xeon and Celeron processors. The Itanium family has been slow to catch on, in part because it requires that software be overhauled.

Supercomputer customers are increasingly drawn to "cluster" supercomputers--those made up of separate, networked systems. Such setups are often less expensive than earlier designs but require more expertise to assemble and run. A cottage industry has sprung up to fill the gap, including Linux NetworX, Scyld Computing, Atipa, Quadrics and Myricom. At the same time, Hewlett-Packard, Dell Computer and IBM are trying to snatch a piece of the pie for themselves.

Customers include pharmaceuticals companies poring through genetic information for new drugs, seismic research companies looking for oil and gas, universities trying to fund a variety of research projects and national laboratories simulating nuclear explosions.

The Itanium family is a good match for supercomputers. The chips are well-suited to churn through mathematical calculations. And though there's not as much software for the processors, supercomputer customers often write their own programs and don't need the many software packages mainstream businesses rely on.

Linux is far and away the most widely used operating system for the new breed of clustered supercomputers, though there are some instances of Windows clusters, such as one at the one at the Cornell Theory Center. In Quadrics' case, the company's software requires deep access to the operating system's heart, or kernel, something that's easy with the open-source General Public License (GPL) that governs Linux.

"Currently we are not seeing a concerted effort to port to Windows," a company representative said.

Quadrics' network cards plug into computers' PCI slots, but a second-generation product coming in the first half of 2003 will use the faster PCI-X data pathway.

Rival Myricom already supports Itanium systems, running either Windows or Linux.

"Myricom is our biggest competitor with a major share of the market," the Quadrics representative acknowledged, but Quadrics is trying to compete by offering management software for administering how jobs run on the cluster.