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SGI lays off another 9 per cent

Itanium support still in limbo

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Supercomputer maker Silicon Graphics has let go 120 more employees, nine per cent of its workforce, in an effort to cut costs as its revenues decline.

These cuts come hot on the heels of a 15 per cent layoff announced in mid-December, when SGI slashed 15 per cent of its 1,500-strong workforce, eliminating 225 positions. After the latest rounds of cuts, SGI has approximately 1,155 employees. That latest round cost the company about $3m in severance and related charges, according to the 8K filing, and SGI expects the layoffs to be completed by March 27.

The financial difficulties at SGI have raised a lot of questions about the company's ability to support two product lines: the Altix 4700s, delivering global shared memory on Itanium chips, and the Altix ICE Xeon clusters, a blade form factor that does not have NUMAflex-enabled shared memory.

Back in November, when SGI was showing off future "Nehalem" Xeon blade servers for the Altix ICE lines, Michael Brown, sciences segment manager at SGI, would not confirm that SGI would be supporting the future "Tukwila" quad-core Itanium chips inside the Altix 4700s. He wouldn't deny it, either.

Tukwila support would require yet another motherboard redesign on the part of SGI, since the delayed Tukwila chips were delayed so they could be tweaked to support DDR3 main memory (rather than the planned DDR2) as well as getting a socket refit do they can plug into the same boards as the future "Poulson" and "Kittson" Itanium generations. Intel originally planned for the Tukwilas, which will support the QuickPath Interconnect used in the Nehalem chips, to have their own socket, and then Poulson and Kittson to share a future and incompatible socket.

The handful of Itanium server vendors probably balked at this idea, and it is a mystery why Intel decided to do this. In any event, the redesign has pushed the Tukwila launch out by six months to mid-2009.

One Reg reader, who is an SGI customer, reacting to the bashing that Unisys gave Itanium in February as it promotes its Xeon-based servers (co-designed with NEC), told us that SGI is telling customers who sign non-disclosure agreements that it will not be supporting Tukwila and that SGI is offering "attractive upgrades though". SGI would clearly be in a much better position if Intel had put 64-bit Xeon chips into the field years early, or had adopted the 64-bit Opterons from Advanced Micro Devices as a stepping stone to future Xeons, as rival Cray had done. (Of course, Cray ain't doing that hot, either, financially speaking.)

The global shared memory architecture of the Altix 4700s is a differentiating feature, to be sure, but it gets increasingly harder to sell Itanium chips to miserly HPC customers, who only care about dollars per flops and flops per watt these days - so long as a box runs Linux, of course.

None of this means that SGI is not going to support Tukwilas in some fashion. For all we know, SGI was one of the vendors pushing Intel to get a common socket for Tukwila, Poulson, and Kittson so it could create something we might call the Altix 4800. Plans change, particularly if Intel is compelled to help SGI to keep Itanium alive. Then again, SGI could ink a reseller agreement with Hewlett-Packard to peddle Itanium-based Superdomes running a tweaked variant of ProPack for Linux math libraries and call it an Itanium day.

Silicon Graphics was not available to comment by press time, and will not pre-announce its product plans even if it was available.

It is perhaps significant that a multi-year, $40m supercomputer modernization deal with the US Department of Defense announced last week included both Altix ICE 8200 machines based on the impending Nehalem processors from Intel and existing Itanium-based Altix 4700 machines.

Under the DoD deal, which involved competitive bidding against unnamed server makers, the DoD High Performance Computing Modernization Program will put Altix ICE 8200 systems in the Army Research Laboratory, the Army Engineer Research and Development Center, the Air Force Research Laboratory, and the Arnold Engineering Development Center. The Naval Surface Warfare Center chose Altix 4700s.

The first phase will see the Army Research Laboratory in Aberdeen, Maryland and the Engineer Research and Development Center in Vicksburg, Mississippi, get the Nehalem blade clusters first, and this gear is expected to be installed by mid-September. SGI did not announce how much aggregate computing power was involved in the award.

The deal also includes various SGI InfiniteStorage disk arrays tuned for HPC. LSI Logic, which supplies disk controllers to SGI, says that the $40m DoD award includes 45 InfiniteStorage 4600 arrays, which are based on LSI's Engenio 7900 HPC product, which will be shared by the labs. The Naval Surface Warfare Center is also deploying low-end InfiniteStorage 220 arrays alongside its Altix 4700s, which are OEMed Engenio 1333 arrays from LSI with some extra SGI goodies tossed in.

The disk array maker says across all DoD HPC centers, the storage capacity awarded in the deal comes to 2.4 petabytes. ®

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