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Hardware Today: SGI Server Snapshot

By Drew Robb (Send Email)
Posted Jun 5, 2006


Bankruptcy proceedings can keep an enterprise quite busy. Not surprisingly, things have been pretty quiet on the SGI server front since our most recent server snapshot. But one very major product change did take place: The company released the Altix 4700 after engaging in what it describes as a ground-up redesign of the basic Altix architecture.

Is standardization the solution for SGI? The product line has shifted from proprietary Unix to Linux on Itanium 2.

"This new blade brings more versatility and performance density to our Altix supercomputing platform," says Jill Matzke, marketing manager of high performance computing at SGI.

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By and large, vendors that have rushed blades to market have had varying levels of success. Dell, for example, quickly issued a blade only to withdraw it and be bladeless for the better part of a year while the market matured. SGI, in contrast, took its time and issued its own model into this space.

Why introduce a new platform at this stage of the game? Increasing performance demands from its high-end computing customers was the driving force, the company says. Customers demanded greater performance density and higher power efficiency.

In terms of raw configuration, the Altix 4700 offers a choice of processor — either a 1.5 MHz Intel Itanium 2 chip with a 4 MB cache or a 1.6 MHz model with a 6 MB cache. The blades run SUSE Linux Enterprise Server (LES) or Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4, and pricing starts at less than $100,000. SGI designed the blade with the future in mind. Matzke reports that it provides socket compatibility with the next two upcoming generations of Intel Itanium 2 processors.

"The innovative blade design of the Altix 4700 utilizes the density advantages of traditional blade servers, and then takes it a step further by introducing modular computing resources in a dense blade form factor," says Matzke. "This architecture offers incredible investment protection, as individual resources can be reconfigured, expanded, upgraded or serviced as the need arises."

The modular computing resources available include memory, I/O, graphics, and Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) technology. FPGA is particularly relevant to data-intensive applications. Such applications typically run a core set of computing routines that tend to consume a majority of the total compute time. FPGAs can be programmed by the user for a specific use or application, and thus can serve as a dedicated compute engine for specific routines.

SGI Loves Linux Loves Itanium

SGI hitched its wagon to the Linux stars several years back. Previously, it focused on Origin servers running the IRIX operating system — a proprietary Unix variant. When the company introduced the Altix line, however, it decided to steer a course away from proprietary operating systems. As a result, it paired up Intel Itanium with Linux for its line of midrange servers.

How has the shift worked out?

"SGI stands behind Linux 100 percent as the best combination of performance, choice, and cost effectiveness," says Matzke. "As other vendors attempt to hang on to their Unix revenues by withholding key features from their Linux-supported servers, SGI works with the Linux community to bring uncompromised scalable performance to Linux."

Its many years of Origin expertise have not been wasted, however. SGI is working steadily to bring advanced features from Origin servers to the Altix line. This is an ongoing program, and the company intends to take it all the way while it phases out the Origin line all together.

IRIX, for example, offers real-time features that had not been ported to Linux until recently. The latest versions of the Altix server incorporate this real-time functionality. To accomplish this, the company had to submit key changes to support real-time features in the kernel to the Linux community and have them accepted.

"We also introduced software to provide a user-level interface for real-time functionality," says Matzke. "This real-time solution is called REACT."

REACT's performance gains include 30 microsecond interrupt guaranteed response time, user-level interrupts, and dynamic configuration of redirected interrupts. In addition, SGI added a frame-rate scheduler, high-resolution clocks/timers, a kernel barrier feature, and a debug toolkit.

In addition to its Linux loyalties, SGI remains bullish about its choice of Itanium chips.

"The Intel Itanium 2 processor delivers far more computational resources and key features essential for the large shared-memory Altix architecture and the big-data applications that it supports," says Matzke. "Upcoming generations of Itanium will offer incredible performance-per-watt with other essential features for high-end computing as it moves to dual core."

This Linux-Itanium 2 combo meshes well with the customer profile. SGI's core business has been to serve the high-performance computing needs of technical, scientific, and engineering users. The large memory address space and system size typical of Altix 3700 and 4700 servers, for example, suits these high-end applications that typically work with very large datasets and highly scalable workloads.

"More recently, certain government and enterprise workloads have grown to the point where Altix-class systems are necessary to handle the large data-intensive applications associated with business intelligence and other data mining or big-database activities," says Matzke.

Future Developments

About a year ago, SGI announced the end of life for its Origin line in favor of the Linux-Itanium-based Altix models. According to Matzke, the transition has been relatively smooth.

The company continues to sell Origin, as it remains a core system in certain niche markets. It intends to support the server through at least 2011.

"SGI has several long-term government programs that take advantage of the Origin's robust I/O and big-data address," says Matzke. "So we continue to sell and support these systems."

According to research firm IDC, SGI holds around 5 percent share in the worldwide technical server marketplace. In an effort to boost its share of the pie, the next version of the Altix 4700 blade is already on the drawing board. It will support the upcoming Intel 'Montecito' dual-core processors.

"Montecito will bring the Altix 4700 a performance density of 2.5 times compared to our Altix 3700 servers and an improvement of more than 2X performance-per-watt," says Matzke. "We will also soon be introducing a midrange product with a similar modular blade design."

SGI Servers, At a Glance

Server Line Description Processors Processor Range Operating System Pricing
Altix 4700 This blade design brings versatility and performance density to the Altix supercomputing platform Intel Itanium 1.5 GHz, 4 MB cache
1.6 GHz, 6 MB cache
SUSE Linux Enterprise Server (SLES) and Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4 Starts at less than $100,000
SGI Altix 3700 Bx2 For technical users seeking high performance with open-source computing, the 3700 combines the cost-effectiveness of clusters with the scalability and capabilities of a supercomputer Intel Itanium 2 1.5 GHz, 4 MB cache
1.6 GHz, 6 MB cache
1.6 GHz, 9 MB cache
SGI Advanced Linux Environment, SUSE Linux Enterprise Server (LES), and Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4 Starts at around $100,000
SGI Altix 1350 Cluster A full-featured integrated cluster that can support a demanding application mix in a multiuser environment Intel Itanium 2 1.6 GHz, 9 MB cache
1.6 GHz, 6 MB cache
1.5 GHz, 4 MB cache
SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9 with Service Pack 1, SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9 with SGI ProPack 4, and Red Hat Enterprise Linux Advanced Server 4 Pricing varies by configuration
SGI Altix 350 A scaled down (in both power and price) version of the Altix 3700, available in 1- to 32- processor configurations, it delivers scalable 64-bit Linux to midrange customers and developers Itanium 2 1.6 GHz, 9 MB cache
1.6 GHz, 6 MB cache
1.5 GHz, 4 MB cache
SGI Advanced Linux Environment, SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9 with Service Pack 1, SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9 with SGI ProPack 4, and Red Hat Enterprise Linux Advanced Server 4 Starts at less than $16,000
SGI Altix 330 An entry-level midrange server with a 1U form factor Intel Itanium 2 1.6 GHz, 6 MB cache
1.3 GHz, 3 MB cache
1.5 GHz, 4 MB cache
SGI Advanced Linux Environment, SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9 with Service Pack 1, SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9 with SGI ProPack 4, and Red Hat Enterprise Linux Advanced Server 4 Starts at a little more than $7,000
SGI Altix 1330 Factory-integrated cluster offers a large-node cluster option to complement the Altix line Intel Itanium 2 1.6 GHz, 6 MB cache
1.3 GHz, 3 MB cache
1.5 GHz, 4 MB cache
SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9 with Service Pack 1, SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9 with SGI ProPack 4, and Red Hat Enterprise Linux Advanced Server 4 Pricing varies by configuration

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