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NEC Calls Dibs on Breaking Linux Eight-Processor Limit

Credit Where Credit is Due

  • January 9, 2003
  • By Brian Proffitt

The Open Source community is rarely one of huge technical leaps. Much of the work that comes out of open-source software projects is incrementatal, freely building on the work that others have done in the past--a lesson that could easily be re-learned this week.

For instance, it was clearly evident in the announcement made by Apple Computers Tuesday about their new default browser, Safari. From the outset the public knew that new application was based on the open-source KHTML and KJM libraries.

This lesson also applied to another big announcement this week: the release of SGI's supercomputer Altix 3000 line. Though, unfortunately, the lesson was not as clear.

A major slant to the announcement was the fact that that the so-called eight-processor limit for Linux had been passed. But what various media outlets, including LinuxPlanet, forgot to mention was that this limit had already been passed by another company last Fall, thanks in large part to work performed in the Open Source community.

Japanese computer maker NEC had released a high-end Linux server line, the Express1000, as early as last November. The Express1000 also featured 64-bit Itanium 2 processors and started on the low end of the line with eight-processor, 8-GB memory machines--ramping up to 32-processor, 32-GB servers.

According to NEC's Director of 64-bit Systems David McAllister, the supposed eight-processor limit was passed when NEC released their product late last year. The technology that SGI used, he said, was a direct result of work done by NEC and other companies through OSDL and the Atlas Project, which is now a part of the Linux on Large Systems (LoLS) Foundry.

"There's a caveat in the Open Source world that you give credit where credit is due," McAllister said. Much of the work that SGI capitalized upon came from the LoLS Project, particularly the NUMA (Non-Uniform Memory Access) technology, which SGI and NEC both use.

NUMA is a parallel processing architecture used in multi-processor systems that lets each processor to have its own memory yet also draw from the memory of other processors if needed. It is the basis for the ccNUMA architecture that NEC uses, and the NUMAlink architecture used by SGI.

McAllister explained that while NUMA is key to making multi-processor machines work, "Linux doesn't understand NUMA, so we have to change it." This is some of the work that NEC and other companies have been doing all along.

SGI did not completely forget the roots of this technology. Though no specific open-source projects were cited in any of the three related press releases made on Altix 3000 Tuesday, SGI Project Manager Jason Pettit did emphasize in his earlier interview with LinuxPlanet that much of the work was done in conjunction and cooperation with standing open-source projects, such as the LoLS project, the Linux Scalability Project, and the work done by David Mosberger to port Linux over to the IA-64 platform.

It should be noted that in none of the information from or conversations with SGI was a claim made that they were the first to break the eight-processor limit. However, emphasis was made on the fact that SGI had moved beyond eight-processor limits and that SGI had indeed been the first to reach 64-processor status.

According to Ginny Babbitt, the media contact for SGI, the emphasis was made on passing the limitation because "so much of the horizontal press was claiming that Linux could never go past eight."

Another reason NEC's product was not mentioned according to SGI's Addison Snell, Marketing Manager of High Performance Computing, was because SGI did not consider them to be a direct competitor, and that comparing one's product to a non-competitior "would be rude."

Based on the sectors that NEC is targeting, this appears correct. NEC is marketing their product line to financial, transactional commerce, and research customers, while SGI is targeting life and physical sciences; media; defense and government; energy; and manufacturing.

Thoughout the clarification of who got past the eight-processor limit first was important to him, McAllister repeatedly emphasized that much of the real work done on this technology came from the efforts of the Open Source community and that the real credit should go there.

Snell responded to McAllister's comments by repeating the project ties SGI has had with open source.

"We're very proud of our relationship with the Open Source community," Snell said.

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