SGI rolls out midrange Linux system

FRAMINGHAM (01/12/2004) - Customers who have shied away from Silicon Graphics Inc.'s Linux-powered supercomputers because they don't need the high-end capabilities -- or the high-end price tag -- may want to take another look with the release of SGI's Altix 350, designed to provide a standards-based alternative to midrange Unix systems from Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc.

On Monday, SGI released the Altix 350, which scales from one to 16 processors and aims to fill a gap in the Altix 3000 line that the company introduced last year. SGI rolled out the Itanium 2-based systems last January in an effort to meet a growing demand for Linux among customers in the high-performance technical computing market, SGI executives say.

The Altix 3000 servers, including the new Altix 350, come with most of the high-end features from SGI's MIPS-based Origin 3000 line, which runs Irix, the company's version of Unix. Those features include SGI's Numalink technology, which enables memory to be shared across processors in a cluster. The Altix 3000 can be expanded modularly, meaning that customers that need more memory, but not more processing power, for example, can add memory without increasing the number of CPUs.

The Altix 350, which SGI is positioning to compete against HP's rx series, IBM's pSeries and Sun's V series servers, was designed specifically for technical computing needs in SGI's five target markets: defense, science, manufacturing, energy and media industries. Until now, customers did not have a true midrange option in the Altix 3000 line, says Andy Fenselau, SGI's Altix product line director.

The entry-level Altix 3300 server, for example, starts around US$70,000 for a four-processor configuration, while the price tag for the high-end Altix 3700 with 64 processors tops $1 million. The Altix 350 starts at about $12,000 for a base one-processor configuration, although SGI expects most sales to come in the four- to 16-processor range at $5,400 per processor.

Bob Ciotti, Terascale application lead at NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., says there is a need for systems in the technical computing midrange that scale better than traditional clusters, but cost less per processor than large supercomputers.

"The question is whether (the Altix 350) can compete performance-wise against the large systems and cost-wise against the clustered systems," he says.

Analysts say so far the performance of the Altix systems has proven to be strong. "SGI has been working very hard to dispel the myth that Linux is not scalable," says Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64. "Performance increases almost linearly as you add more processors, which is something nobody else has been able to do (with Linux) especially for large numbers of CPUs. The general feeling has been if you're going to 64 processors, you need some sort of a proprietary Unix, a la Solaris or HP-UX. So the fact that they've been able to achieve this with Linux is notable." "

Today, the Altix 3000 can support a single Linux instance across as many as 64 processors and in February will support a single Linux kernel running across 128 processors, Fenselau says.

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