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SGI's Rackable's future supercomputers

Goodbye Itanium, hello Nehalem

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Comment The Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing by beleaguered supercomputer-maker Silicon Graphics and the acquisition of most of SGI's assets by Rackable Systems for $25m in cash may lay to rest any questions about the future of shared-memory, Itanium-based supercomputers.

As Dell and IBM have encroached on Rackable's business among hyperscale Internet companies with their custom-built servers, Rackable has tried to peddle its energy-efficient and compute-dense rack-based clusters to supercomputer centers.

It can be argued that the $25m it's spending to acquire the assets and customer base of SGI is a lot smarter than the $40m in share-buybacks the company announced back in February when it reported fourth-quarter 2008 sales down 65.1 per cent to $38.8m and an $18.2m loss compared to a $4.7m profit in the final quarter of 2007.

Buying SGI is perhaps a way to kickstart HPC sales. It also seems to be a relatively inexpensive way for Rackable to get its hands on the intellectual property and expertise that will be needed to take a serious run at the HPC market - meaning commercial, academic, and government supercomputing centers that don't mind taking risks on new technologies if a vendor can cram the flops into a box.

Neither SGI nor Rackable returned calls for comment about the effect of the deal on the two companies' respective server and storage lineups - or, for that matter, on the employees at SGI -but a statement to customers from SGI's chief executive officer, Bo Ewald, gave some hints about the products.

"Our joint objective is to build an even more powerful company capable of providing a wide range of products from built-to-order clusters to our new breakthrough UltraViolet shared memory system that is currently in development," Ewald wrote. "We'll surround our HPC systems with combined storage and software products, and continue developing our leading edge VUE visualization software. We further plan to merge our two service organizations and continue to provide the customer and professional services for which you rely upon us."

UltraViolet, the code name for SGI's fifth-generation NUMAflex shared-memory clusters, was referred to as an "x86 shared memory system" in a similar statement from Doug Britt, SGI's senior vice president of global sales and service - so I guess we all know what SGI had planned for the future quad-core Tukwila Itaniums.

The scuttlebutt was that SGI would ditch Itanium for Nehalem, but there was always the possibility that the Altix 4700 shared-memory supers could be tweaked to support either chip if the QuickPath Interconnect were on both styles of system boards.

Britt did not say "Itanium-based" when he referred to UltraViolet. And you can't blame him.

The continual delays in the Itanium roadmap have made it very difficult for SGI to get traction. When it launched its Altix line of supers at the turn of the millennium, SGI staked its future on the Itanium and Linux combo. And by the summer of 2006 (as it was in an early bankruptcy protection) the company decided that it could not afford to do MIPS-chip and Irix Unix development any more, and killed the products off.

At that point, the company was tied to the Itanium roadmap, just as Intel was finally waking up to the 64-bit Opteron threat.

Whoops.

Since then, even with the excellent Altix 4700 architecture, sales have been hindered because the standard in the HPC space is, for many customers, an x64 server node.

The benefits of shared memory cannot overcome the incompatibility and expense of Itanium servers, and SGI got crushed in those pincers despite some big deals for Altix machines. And the Altix ICE blade-style clusters didn't have the shared-memory secret sauce enabled by NUMAflex, and therefore didn't give SGI enough of an edge against generic clusters.

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