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Sun measures HPC backorders in petaflops

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SC08 Hot on the heels of job cuts that will see some 5,000 to 6,000 company employees given pink slips, John Fowler, the executive vice president in charge of the newly constituted Systems Platforms group at Sun Microsystems, was on hand at the SC08 supercomputing trade show to give a preview of products that Sun will be rolling out in the coming months.

While HPC server clusters have not traditionally been a strong area for sales for Sun, the company certainly sold a lot of workstations and servers in its day to government labs and academia in the 1980s and 1990s, and the advent of the "Starfire" 64-processor E10K servers in the mid-1990s put the company on the map in the data center and in a large number of HPC centers around the world. The lateness of the UltraSparc-III systems, the disappointing performance of its "Wildfire" interconnect, and the rapid adoption of commodity clusters running Linux took some of the wind out of Sun's HPC business, which Fowler estimates (very roughly) to be around $1bn today.

"Sales are definitely going up, but it is still a small part of Sun," Fowler says. But the good news, if you are a Sun executive or shareholder, is that Sun's backlog in HPC orders is now measured in petaflops.

With its substantial investment in hardware engineering for InfiniBand switches, blade servers, dense storage arrays, and sophisticated software, such as ZFS and the Lustre file system for HPC workloads, and its embracing of Linux, Sun is hoping it can catch hold of some of the growth in the HPC market, which is outpacing the overall server market and is, in some ways, immune to the current downturn because funding for HPC systems is already in place and budgeted. (Two years from now may be an entirely different story for all HPC system vendors if the economy doesn't improve). Part of winning future deals is to talk about future products, something that Sun needs to do not just because of HPC budget horizons, but because of its worrisome financial circumstances.

First up in the Sun preview at the SC08 trade show is a forthcoming two-socket blade server that packs two whole servers onto a single blade as well as native quad data rate InfiniBand links coming right off the board (QDR for short, and that's 40 Gb/sec). The current Sun blades used in its "Constellation" InfiniBand blade clusters rely on PCI-Express cards to plug into the blades and interface with the "Magnum" InfiniBand switch that is at the heart of the Constellation setup.

Speaking of which: The Magnum switch is being given a rev and will soon have 648 ports running at QDR. The current Magnum switch has 3,456 ports running at the dual data rate. Fowler says that despite the advances of 10 Gigabit Ethernet compared to Gigabit Ethernet, Sun picked InfiniBand for HPC workloads and is sticking with it. "InfiniBand will be the performance leader," Fowler says. "If you want the best numbers - lowest latency, lowest watts per byte, what have you - you are going with InfiniBand."</p.

Moreover, InfiniBand is available at 40 Gb/sec today and will be at 80 Gb/sec soon enough, and customers can gang up InfiniBand lanes to double up bandwidth as well. Moreover, InfiniBand doesn't drop packets, as Ethernet does, says Fowler. "Still, we're not going to position this as an InfiniBand versus Ethernet thing."

No, but Sun is certainly expecting customers to do that, particularly when the higher bandwidth of flash-assisted storage arrays start to really put pressure on interconnection networks in server clusters.

Which brings us to second product Sun was previewing at the show: Yet another variant in its so-called open storage lineup, which is a rack of storage arrays with hundreds of hard disks and flash disks delivering very high bandwidth. More details of this product, which is apparently code-named "Genesis," were not available. (And if you peek into the cabinet, you can't see anything).

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