SiCortex cranks clocks on mega MIPS machines
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Supercomputer maker SiCortex launched its first MIPS-based Linux machines back in November 2006 and has been gradually ramping up sales. To help make its sales pitch easier, the company this week announced a kicker to its original boxes, which now support faster processors, a tweaked software stack, and manufacturing costs that SiCortex is passing on to its customers as lower prices.
The SiCortex chip is a variant of the MIPS architecture created by supercomputer rival Silicon Graphics before it abandoned MIPS for Intel's Itanium chips. The chip puts a six-node computing cluster on a single chip. This is what you call a "system on a chip," or SoC design.
By getting all of the interconnections down to the silicon level, rather than linking everything in the cluster through massive external networks that generate a lot of heat, SiCortex could get a six-node cluster capable of 6 gigaflops of number-crunching power down to about 10 watts of juice. Add DDR2 main memory for the node, and the wattage only goes up to around 15 watts per node.
The SiCortex SoC design includes on-chip PCI Express port for linking to storage as well as two memory controllers and a cluster interconnect (fabric switch) for linking SoC modules to each other. Each chip has its own L1 cache, plus a shared 1.5 MB L2 cache.
According to Kem Stewart, vice president of hardware engineering at SiCortex, improved yields at partner Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp using its 90 nanometer processes against the SoC part created by SiCortex have allowed the company to boost the clock speed on the six cores per chip to 700 MHz, a boost of 40 per cent.
In the wake of its acquisition of compiler expert PathScale, SiCortex has done a MIPS port of the compiler suite and has also done a lot of work on the libraries and systems software in the variant of Gentoo Linux (one of the many flavors of Debian Linux out there) and the Lustre clustered file system used SiCortex iron.
Because the MIPS chip has a relatively simple pipeline, compiler tuning is a big deal, since you are not relying on out-of-order execution and other hardware techniques to get more performance The upshot is that each core on the SiCortex SoC chip can deliver 1.4 gigaflops of performance, up from 1 gigaflops on the prior 500 MHz chips.
That's the increased performance side of the kicker boxes. Stewart also says that DDR2 memory prices are half what they were a year ago, and that manufacturing efficiencies at its Maynard, Massachusetts, factory have also been realized as production for the boxes has ramped, which is allowing the company to cut prices by 25 per cent or so. When you add in another 35 per cent improvement in raw performance thanks to software tweaks, the kickers deliver about twice the bang for the buck as the prior SiCortex machines.
SiCortex has long sold what it calls a personal supercomputer - something that Cray launched this week. And if you buy one of its big boxes, you get a personal super as part of the deal, so developers have a box to play with and compile code on. This personal super is called the SC072-PDS, and it is a desk-side box that has 72 cores and 100.8 gigaflops of peak performance. (This is considerably lower than the maximum of 768 gigaflops that the 64-core Cray CX1 can deliver with two-socket blades taking up all eight slots).
The top-end SC5832 machine has 5,832 processors, 8 TB of memory, and 2.1 terabits/sec of I/O bandwidth and is rated at 5.8 teraflops using the old 500 MHz SOCs and 8.1 teraflops using the 700 MHz new chips. A smaller SC648 system has 648 processors, 864 GB of memory, and 240 gigabits/sec of I/O bandwidth and is rated at 648 gigaflops peak using the old SOCs and just under 900 gigaflops using the newer ones. The SC648 latter machine takes up only half of a standard server rack and can plug into normal wall power. The larger system requires 240-volt power.
SiCortex was founded in 2003 and has secured $52 million in two rounds of venture capital funding and one round of debt to date. The latest round, a $10 million venture debt for SiCortex, came in last July from Hercules Technology Growth Capital, a venture capitalist from Palo Alto, California, that invests in technology and life sciences firms.
In December 2006, SiCortex named John Rollwagen, formerly the chairman and chief executive officer of Cray Research from 1981 through 1993, as its chairman. Rollwagen is also an investor in SiCortex, as is Chevron Technology Ventures, Flagship Ventures, JK&B Capital, Polaris Venture Partners, and Prism VentureWorks. This August, Chris Stone, formerly a vice chairman at Novell and CEO of the Object Management Group, creator of the COBRA distributed computing standard, was named CEO of SiCortex. John Mucci, the CEO at the company's founding, is staying on the board of directors. ®
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