SGI begins high-end Linux push

The maker of high-end computers for technical tasks has begun selling a new server running Linux on as many as 64 Itanium 2 processors.

Stephen Shankland
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SGI, a maker of high-end computers for technical tasks, has begun selling a new server running Linux on as many as 64 Itanium 2 processors, the company plans to announce Tuesday.

The system--which had been code-named SN2 and now is called the Altix 3000 series--is geared for customers who need to make heavy-duty numerical calculations such as car-crash analysis or aircraft aerodynamics. It also comes with a price tag that can reach above $1 million for high-end configurations of the refrigerator-size machine.

The Altix 3000 systems are essentially an adaptation of SGI's existing Origin 3000 systems, which use SGI-designed MIPS processors and Irix, its version of Unix. The Altix 3000 systems, though, use Itanium processors and Linux, a move that lets SGI benefit from others' research and development budgets and that weans SGI off its reliance on its in-house technology.

"They've gotten themselves over to a processor with pretty good performance prospects," said Gordon Haff, an Illuminata analyst. "If you're in the high-performance computing game, you'd better be able to deliver high performance. This would have become more and more of an issue with MIPS, (and Linux right now is) clearly the current darling of the high-performance computing crowd."

It wasn't easy getting to this point, though. The Altix line is SGI's second crack at Linux systems--the first being with lower-end general-purpose servers that faced tough competition from much larger companies such as Dell Computer and Hewlett-Packard. SGI has also had a tough time with Windows workstations, an experience that led the company to retrench and focus on its high-end technical customers rather than the general business market.

The Altix, though, is geared for its more specialized customers. "This is very technologically impressive. It's not a general-purpose box, but it's technologically impressive for the types of problems it's tackling," Haff said.

SGI is positioning the new system as a competitor to cluster supercomputers, which combine groups of lower-end servers with a high-speed interconnect. Such systems tend to be good for tasks that can be broken up into independent jobs.

SGI also offers the capability to link several Altix 3000 systems into a cluster of high-end servers, with plans ultimately to support eight nodes--512 processors in total--by the end of the first year of shipment, according to Jan Silverman, senior vice president of marketing at SGI. The architecture supports as many as 2,048 processors in total, the company said.

SGI had been touting a predecessor for the Altix, the SN1, but that machine never saw the light of day. Based on the first Itanium processor--Intel's ill-fated Merced chip--the SN1 was used only for software development purposes.

The new SGI system can use a stock version of Linux from Red Hat, said Greg Estes, the company's vice president of corporate marketing. But SGI recommends using a modified version that includes improvements such as SGI's XFS file system and software that takes advantage of specific features in the SGI systems. SGI also has contributed to work such as the Linux Scalability Effort to improve the operating system on high-end machines.

There are two configurations of the Altix system: the 3300, with as many as 12 processors, and the 3700, with as many as 64. Each system will accept sequels to the current Itanium 2 product, including models code-named Madison and Montecito, due for release this year and next.

A 16-processor 3700 with 16GB of memory costs $305,000, and a 64-processor system with 64GB of memory costs $1 million, according to SGI.

Representatives for SGI said the University of Tokyo has purchased a 64-processor 3700, a 32-processor 3700 and a 12-processor 3300, and the University of Queensland in Australia has purchased a 64-processor 3700 and an eight-processor 3700.