July 22, 2009
It's been just a little over two months since Rackable Systems acquired SGI and merged the two product lines. From all appearances, it has been a fairly smooth transition. A lot of that has to do with the fact that the new company has left both sets of product offerings intact, although the future "Ultraviolet" system will change that somewhat. I'll get to that plot line in a moment.
According to Geoffrey Noer, senior director of product marketing at SGI, they "have not discontinued any of the products and have no immediate plans to do so." The product continuity is a reflection of the company's intent to combine Rackable's established customers in the Internet/cloud computing space with SGI's strength in the high performance computing market. Even before the merger deal, Rackable was looking at the HPC technical and federal government markets as a way to grow the business. Now that they have the SGI Altix products in tow, they get to those markets by default.
Except for the adoption of SGI as the new company name, most of the product branding will remain intact too, with just some minor tweaks. The Rackable name, itself, will live on in the company's rack-mount server line. This consists of the half depth x86 servers, which can be mounted back to back, plus the standard depth servers. One change is that the SGI Altix XE line has been folded into Rackable server portfolio. The rack-mount machines represent the company's most flexible systems, configuration-wise.
The CloudRack C2 offerings are also from the Rackable legacy, and as you might guess are aimed at cloud computing and other large-scale datacenter type applications. The CloudRack tray design is sort of a cross between a rack-mount and blade architecture. To boost energy efficiency -- a big Rackable focus, even before it became fashionable -- DC power as well as fan cooling is supplied at the rack level rather than inside each server. Noer says the system is 93 percent efficient from the plug to the server.
The CloudRack's real claim to fame is its adaptability for hot datacenter environments, with some configurations rated for air temperatures as high as 40C (104F). One of the latest trends in datacenters recently has been to let temperatures rise in order to help cut air conditioning costs. The problem is that the system architecture needs to take this into account, otherwise the power you save in AC just gets re-spent by the fans. The CloudRack approach is to use large external fans and place the hard drives, which tend to be one of the more heat-sensitive components, at the front of the rack where it gets the coolest air. The CPUs are more heat-tolerant, so they go toward the back. With this design, a kilowatt of fans can cool the 80 or more servers, according to Noer. The idea is to be able to use ambient outside air for much of the year, and in cool summer climates, it may be possible to do away with AC altogether.
The ICE Cube is SGI's containerized datacenter offering. And despite the ICE designation, it was developed under the Rackable regime. Containerized datacenter solutions have been all the rage lately, with every major system vendors offering some version of this. Noer says they have SGI customers who are interested in deploying Altix 4700 shared memory HPC machines in containers, and they're looking into how this might be accomplished.
In fact, even though the product lines mentioned are aimed at the scaled-out datacenter, SGI believes they can also be sold into HPC accounts as well. The rack-mount servers have had some success in this space even before the merger, and Noer says they have future plans for HPC-centric support in their CloudRack line too.
The Altix ICE 8200 and Altix 4700 product lines from the legacy SGI business will remain in place at the heart of the HPC business. The ICE 8200 is based on Intel Xeon-based blades, while the 4700 is SGI's latest shared memory system powered by the Itanium processor and the proprietary NUMAlink system interconnect. The shared memory machine enables up to 512 processors (1024 cores) and 120 TB of memory to be under the control of a single image of the operating system.
The Itanium-based machines have been popular with a few high-end HPC users looking for a shared memory programming model. But even in the TOP500 list, there are only three SGI Altix shared memory systems, one of which is NASA's Columbia machine, which is based on the older 3700 architecture. That compares to 15 SGI ICE 8200 systems on the TOP500, including the number four-ranked Pleiades supercomputer at NASA. The decline of Itanium's fortunes in high performance computing has paralleled the rapid rise of x86 performance and its support for cache coherent NUMA. The fact that Intel was chronically late on introducing new versions of Itanium didn't help the processor's cause.
Well, apparently SGI is moving on as well. Noer says they will continue to sell the 4700, but the next generation shared memory system will be based on the new Ultraviolet architecture. That design will use Intel Nehalem EX chips along with the next generation NUMAlink interconnect. Presumably this means the future "Tukwila" quad-core Itanium chips will never find a home at SGI*. Although the 4700 line will continue to be offered for some period of time, the idea is to eventually migrate all the current users to the new architecture. "The intention is that Ultraviolet is the future of the shared memory systems line," says Noer.
According to him, more information about Ultraviolet will be publicly revealed later this year (although SGI customers have been privy to some of the details for awhile now). I would expect to see the introduction of the first new machines coincident with Intel's release of the Nehalem EX processors, which probably means early 2010.
Bringing the entire server product portfolio under x86 won't be a panacea for the new SGI, but it's a step in the right direction. The competition in the HPC system arena is still rather formidable despite the loss of Linux Networx and SiCortex. If SGI manages to find a comfort zone below the tier one vendors by being more nimble and willing to go after both large and small accounts, it should be able to ride out the tough economy until better times return.
[*UPDATE: According to the latest blog by CEO Mark Barrenechea, SGI's support for Itanium may extend much farther than what is described here. Mark at least implies that both Xeon and Itanium will be part of the shared memory Ultraviolet systems in the future and he portrays SGI's committment to Itanium as "100%." I suggest you take a look at the full blog entry to form your own opinion.]
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