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SGI Releases New Mid-Range Server

One Sizes Does Not Fit All

  • January 12, 2004
  • By Brian Proffitt

Taking one step farther into the realm of Linux computing for the scientific and technical community, SGI announced the release of its mid-range Altix 350 server today. Based on its architecture, it may represent the first steps SGI will take towards the business arena as well.

The 350, a smaller cousin of of the Altix 3000, is designed to tread in situations where the big-iron-like power of the 3000 is not needed, or may actually be a detriment.

According to SGI's Director of Altix Marketing Andy Fenselau, the 350 was created to serve a specific need for SGI's target customer, the scientific, technical, and graphics communities.

Big systems that have 128 processors or more, Fenselau explained, are best suited for massive, high-capability jobs that need sheer power of number-crunching. On the other end of SGI's customer spectrum are the homogeneous environments that use the same applications and the same job sizes over and over again, thus allowing smaller 32-bit clusters to be custom-built for these environments. Render farms was one example Fenselau gave.

What SGI wants the Altix 350 to do is step into the in-between work of heterogeneous environments, where clusters are hit with different jobs running on different applications at any given time, such as a university setting.

Currently, Fenselau maintained, "All of us big vendors have been guilty of applying one-size-fits-all cluster into mid-range heterogeneous environments." No more, at least on the part of SGI.

The new Altix 350 will try to break away from that model by providing users with a 64-bit Itanium 2 machine that can run 4-16 processors at once. The system can also have up to 192 GB of global shared memory under a completely unified architecture that allows customers to hold massive ammounts of data in memory, thus reducing I/O hits and increasing system performance.

Fenselau explained that each system is customizable to the customer's needs, with the possibility of adding extra CPU, memory, or I/O expansion modules to the Altix chasis. The system can also use the recently announced low-voltage version of the Itanium 2 processors.

The system can also be tied to other Altix 350s to form a larger cluster set.

SGI's mission is to convince what it perceives as a $2.6 billion scientific and technical market to drop proprietary UNIX OSes and shift to Linux. It is already seeing migrations from its own IRIX system to Linux, and has started to see a trend of migration away IBM's AIX, HP's HP-UX, and Sun Microsystem's Solaris as well. But, according to Fenselau, nearly 80 percent of this market is still tied to proprietary OSes and that's something SGI wants to change.

"We need to prove that Linux is ready for this market," Fenselau said, To do this, SGI is emphasizing recent performance records that SGI shattered with the Altix 3000, a strong developer base, and a support model that Fenselau believes is better than anything IBM or Sun have to offer.

This support model, which has SGI pursuing each customer problem all the way from start to finish, rather than handing it off to a distribution company, has proved to be highly successful for SGI thus far.

Rather than having problems with open-source based technology, Fenselau remarked that sometimes a customer will point out a bug and SGI will come to discover that there has already been a patch issued for that bug or one is on the way.

SGI seems committed to the open-source way of getting things done, and Fenselau mildly chastised competitor IBM for not pursuing Linux further. "For today, it seems, IBM is only pushing Linux on the low end." For higher-end environments, Fenselau still percieves IBM promoting its AIX OS.

Currently, SGI sees this 4-16 processor machine as a "sweet spot" against competitors. Certainly SGI's recent successes at NASA have helped raise customer awareness of the company, too. Fenselau pointed out their performance breakthoughs at NASA, though emphasizing that the 512-processor there is a custom-built job designed specifically for the US space agency.

Still, Fenselau added, this ability to customize gives the customer a lot of leverage to come to SGI and get what they want.

"They're coming to us and saying 'This is Linux. We know it will work. What will it take to support us?', Fenselau said.

Now that they are working in such heterogeneous environments, it is hard not to wonder if SGI will eventually branch out of their scientific and technical market and into the enterprise market. Fenselau would not give specifics, but he would not rule it out, either.

If such a move were to occur, he said, SGI would need to expand its apps base and work with partners who have better channels into the enterprise. Still, citing the Atix's global shared memory feature, Fenselau indicated that such a hush amount of shared memory would allow entire databases to be held in memory, thus increasing the performance by a huge magnitude.

The SGI Altix 350 is available today. Pricing starts at $5,400 per processor, with a standard four-processor system listing at $21,599.

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