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Orion Multisystems ships 96-processor workstation

Start-up begins shipping computers for those who need 96 processors and 192GB of memory at their desks. Photos: Workstation firepower

Start-up Orion Multisystems has begun shipping computers for those engineers, graphic designers and biologists who need 96 processors and 192GB of memory at their desks.

Orion specializes in clustered workstations, computers that break up complex tasks so they can be digested by several linked processors simultaneously. Clustering has been popular in servers for several years.

It's a new phenomenon for desktops. Orion started shipping a 12-processor desktop cluster last October and has garnered about 30 to 40 customers, said founder Colin Hunter, including the National Institutes of Health, a couple of Russian oil companies, and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which has been testing a 96-node box.

Orion deskside computer

Though these 96-processor workstations start at $100,000, Hunter said a growing number of scientists will want ready access to this kind of computing firepower. Now a drug designer who needs to run a complex simulation has to book time on a cluster located in the server room.

"The design process occurs at odd hours, and they want custody of their computing resources," he said.

In the future, the company will likely come out with models that can accommodate more processors and memory and handle chips that run 64-bit software, as well as models with chips that run at higher speeds, he said.

Microsoft will also come out this fall with a version of Windows for clusters, which will increase the software options.

Though analysts and many executives dismiss the hardware world as a place where commodity is king, several companies in the past few years have tried to promote novel computer designs, such as tablet PCs and server appliances. Some of these companies, such as RLX, have withered under the competitive pressure, while others, such as ClearCube (bladed desktops), California Digital (clustered supercomputers) and Egenera (blade servers) have survived their tumultuous childhoods.

In some ways, Orion is merely a logical extension of Moore's Law, which predicts steady increases in computing power. Dual-core processors sounded futuristic four years ago; now every major chipmaker produces them. Improvements in clustering software and applications mean that multiprocessor desktops will become normal, Hunter said.

So far, none of the major players have clustered workstations, but that will likely change, said Hunter, who said the market reminds him of the early '80s when a then young and scrappy Sun Microsystems began to grow by nabbing customers too small for then behemoth Digital Equipment to bother with.

"At some point the big guys will notice that this market will not go away and the great ships will start turning," he said. "There will be products that will compete with us. We just hope to be out there and established already."

"There's a fairly steady market for workstations that measures about 1.5 million units per year for these high-end applications," Roger Kay, an IDC analyst, wrote in an e-mail. "I would say that Orion can bid for a share of this market."

The difficult part for the company is that the machines only use Transmeta processors, Kay said, but Hunter said Orion is looking at incorporating chips from other manufacturers.

To encourage sales, Orion spends a substantial part of its energy ensuring that a given customer's applications will run adequately on a clustered desktop. "Some have homegrown stuff. Some have commercial applications," Hunter said.