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Dell inks Linux HPC cluster deal with Cray

Beowulf 'not good enough'

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ComputerWire: IT Industry Intelligence

Dell Computer Corp may be setting the pace in the Intel-based server market by virtue of the high-volume business it does at the low-end of the server market,

Timothy Prickett Morgan writes

. But the company does not have any expertise in enterprise Unix servers and it sure doesn't have all that much experience in the fast-growing market for high performance computing (HPC) clusters using Linux operating systems and clustering extensions.

This is why Dell will today announce that it has chosen Cray Inc, the Seattle-based company that flies the flag bearing the moniker of the founder of the supercomputer business, to be its partner in HPC Linux clusters.

The deal is, according to sources at Cray, much more than a normal OEM agreement. Cray isn't simply buying Dell servers and selling them into HPC accounts, which it could do with or without Dell's help. The deal, which does not involve any equity investments from either party, includes provisions for lead sharing.

For customers who know what they want and know how to build their own clusters, Dell will be the main conduit for sales of PowerEdge servers and add-on networking and software under this deal.

But the minute a company wants evaluation, installation, maintenance or other services, Cray will take over the deal and it will acquire the necessary PowerEdge hardware and other equipment from Dell - or other third parties as required - and build a Linux cluster and install whatever software on the cluster is necessary. Cray has 300 installation and service techs worldwide who know how to do this work, and it is easier for Dell to push products and leave the integration work to experts.

As part of the agreement, Cray has access to the Dell server roadmap (which means it knows exactly what Intel and third party suppliers who support Intel platforms are up to for the next few years in terms of hardware) and can even influence the design of servers specifically suited for HPC applications. Cray says that it will sometimes sell its SV and MTA lines of supercomputers, other times sell just HPC clusters using Dell hardware, and sometimes sell both at the same time to customers.

The Cray HPC clusters will be based on Dell PowerEdge servers and Red Hat Linux 7.2 with the cluster extensions developed by Linux, according to Steve Conway, a spokesperson for Cray. He says that Cray had been working on advanced clustering designs before it was acquired by Silicon Graphics in 1996, and that the company has software technologies that will blow away current Linux clusters.

He says that the Cray offering will include popular Linux clustering hardware and software from Myricom Inc and Quadrics Ltd; the company will not be selling clusters based on the open source Beowulf clustering software for Linux, however. "Beowulf is for companies that do not need high-performance clusters and who can get by with some clustered PCs," says Conway. "Beowulf clusters are great at dealing with many small problems, but PCs are not made to communicate with each other at high-speed, and therefore on true HPC jobs Beowulf isn't good enough."

Conway says that Cray is chasing about a half-dozen HPC cluster deals right now, and that Dell has a much larger backlog of customers who are interested in building Linux clusters. Cray and Dell needed to do a deal, which is exclusive to Cray once a customer asks for integration or implementation services, because neither company had a dance partner in the Linux HPC cluster market.

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