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SGI to unveil new supercomputer

The high-end computer maker on Monday will unveil a new machine that packs far more computing power per square inch than do competing machines.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
3 min read
A new supercomputer from SGI packs far more computing power per square inch than do competing machines, a breakthrough the company hopes will help it flourish in what it sees as a renaissance in supercomputing.

The Origin 3900, which SGI will unveil Monday and also show off at the Supercomputing 2002 trade show beginning Nov. 18 in Baltimore, can hold up to 128 processors and fit into a single rack, said Addison Snell, product marketing manager for high performance computing at SGI. Current Origin computers can hold only 32 processors in a rack.

"The Origin 3900 effectively quadruples the maximum compute density," he said. "It has the density of a blade (server) but the architecture of a supercomputer."

Floor space in computing rooms is valuable, so reducing the size of computers saves money and expands the places where these systems can be installed. Versions of the Origin 3900, for example, could be fit onto an oil exploration ship or a plane.

The density of the Origin 3900 is largely accomplished through the low-energy characteristics of the company's MIPS processor, which consumes about 17 watts, about the same as a notebook chip.

Additionally, density increases performance by reducing the distance that signals have to travel between the processors, memory and other subsystems. The subsets of most large supercomputers are linked through cables. Because signals can't be accelerated, the best improvement lies in pushing the machines closer together.

SGI, a much beleaguered company, is hoping that these architectural changes will help it latch onto the recent increase in activity in scientific computing. The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and other events have breathed new life into the market, prompting companies such as IBM and SGI to enhance their products and service offerings.

"Clearly there are some areas of the scientific and technical computing market that are picking up," said Jean Bozman, a research vice president at market research firm IDC.

One of the more active areas is that of the life sciences. Despite the economic downturn, biotech companies are continuing to invest in computing capabilities, according to executives, because of the nature of their businesses and because of promising opportunities. Also, said one server executive, "They have money."

In September, for instance, IBM formed an alliance with life sciences giant Applera to design systems and services for pharmaceutical research companies.

Military and defense contracting have also increased since September 2001, Snell said. The bulk of the budget increases, which are classified, comes from the effort to create a Department of Homeland Security. Concern about U.S. national defense is also a contributing factor. The computing power of NEC's Earth Simulator sent shock waves through the U.S. government because it marked the first time that Japan had a substantial lead over the United States.

"To the U.S. government, this was a Sputnik-class event," Snell said.

Large companies are also examining larger systems for testing and simulation. Procter & Gamble, for example, uses an SGI system to study the aerodynamics of Pringle's potato chips, Snell said. The chips move along a conveyor belt so fast that they actually take flight. Through aerodynamic modeling, the company can change the shape of the chips and speed up manufacturing. P&G also uses the system to study fluid dynamics in disposable diapers.

In the next few months, SGI will come out with its first Itanium 2 computers. These systems will hold 32 processors per rack and will run the Linux operating system.

The base configuration of the Origin 3900 includes four processors and 512MB of memory. A beefed-up system with 128 processors and 64GB of memory sells for $2.9 million.