SGI renews Itanium super love (sort of)
AMD shared memory box flirt
For a company that has been trying to bolster its position in the supercomputing market for the past several years, Silicon Graphics has been pretty vague about its commitment to future Itanium processors for Intel.
Lucky for the SGI - which is now Rackable Systems with some SGI legacy products and customers - Intel keeps delaying the delivery of the quad-core "Tukwila" Itanium chips, so it never has to come clean and say it will or will not use the processors in future shared-memory supercomputers.
Actually, SGI really does have to do that. But it seems incapable of saying either yes or no to Tukwila, even as it espouses its "commitment" to Itanium as it is building its next-generation "UltraViolet" NUMAlink shared memory supercomputers in the Altix family on Intel's forthcoming "Nehalem EX" or (sometimes called "Beckton") processors.
In the wake of the acquisition  of SGI's assets by Rackable on April 1 (at a price that eventually came in at $$2.5m), Rackable Systems - which had only about 300 of its own customers compared to 4,500 for SGI - took the SGI name  and set to work rationalizing the two company's product lines. Now that work is done, and SGI is ready to talk a little bit about its plans for the future. Including sales of Rackable's rack servers by its channel partners, SGI now reckons it has over 6,000 customers worldwide and has over 1,300 employees chasing hyperscale and HPC server business.
After the merger and reorganization, SGI has four different product lines, which are basically the same ones it had before. The various lines of rack-based servers are now being given the Rackable brand name, with the Altix XE x64-based rack servers being merged into Rackable's existing 1U, 2U, 3U, and 4U rack half-depth, rack-based servers. The CloudRack C2 cookie sheet servers stay as they were, and so does the Altix ICE 8200 blade-style servers with on-board dual-data rate (20 Gbit/sec) InfiniBand interconnects that were created by the original SGI.
These Altix ICE servers already had support for Intel's quad-core "Nehalem EP" processors for two-socket servers prior to the merger of the lines and remain unchanged for the moment. And finally, there are the Altix 4700 series of machines, which use the NUMAlink clustering technology built by SGI to create a shared-memory supercomputer that can bring 512 dual-core Itanium processors and 100 TB of main memory to bear on big Linux workloads.
Rackable's OmniStore storage line is now merged into SGI's InfiniteStorage arrays. Rounding out the offering is another product with the ICE brand: the ICE Cube containerized data center, which Rackable was pushing along with Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and Sun Microsystems with limited success.
Geoffrey Noer, senior director of product marketing at the new SGI, dodged the direct questions about what SGI would do with regard to the forthcoming Tukwila chips, which are now expected  in 2010, several months after the eight-core Nehalem EX processors that share the QuickPath Interconnect (QPI) architecture that made its debut  in March with the Nehalem EPs.
Both the Tukwila Itanium and Nehalem EX Xeon processors are designed from the get-go to work in machines that have more than two sockets (although you can use Tukwilas in two-socket servers if you want) and are therefore appropriate for the kickers to the current Altix 4700 shared memory systems. It is not a question of technology, but of what SGI is actually going to do.
"Moving forward, we are looking at ways to cross-pollinate technologies, and we are becoming one company much faster than we anticipated," explains Noer. But when you bring up the Altix 4700 line and the UltraViolet kickers, Noer, like other old SGI executives for the past year, starts hemming and hawing.
"UltraVoilet is Nehalem EX-based, and more details will be available later this year," Noer said. "We're definitely redoubling our effort on this product."
Read my Flops
Apparently, there is even a possibility of a NUMAlink machine based on Opteron processors from Advanced Micro Devices, now that UltraViolet supports Xeons and the QPI architecture, which bears a strong resemblance to the Opteron's HyperTransport interconnect. "We are interested in having an AMD shared memory solution, and we are looking into our options."
This stands to reason, since the Rackable part of the new SGI supported both Intel Xeon and AMD Opteron processors in its rack server lineup. And in fact, Noer says that the new SGI is committed to putting Opteron processors as an option on the Altix ICE blade-style servers and is working on this now.
The company is also working to get quad data rate (40 Gb/sec) InfiniBand ports on the Altix ICE blades now that QDR switches are going mainstream. And you can also expect to see HPC-friendly configurations of the CloudRack cookie sheet servers, such as the addition of InfiniBand networking, for companies that want minimalist hardware designs for the HPC boxes.
But Noer would not comment on SGI's plans for the Tukwila Itaniums, which cannot plug into the Altix 4700 machines because those NUMAlink boxes only support Itanium processors that use the old frontside bus architecture that QPI did away with.
After speaking to El Reg and a number of IT trade rags that follow the HPC space, the new SGI sent this follow-up statement to "further clarify" its position on the Itanium processor in its products:
SGI is committed to its Itanium-based products which include the Altix 450 and Altix 4700 supercomputers, our flagship shared-memory systems. Building on notable customer wins, we are confident that our Itanium-based products will continue to be embraced for HPC applications. SGI will support Intel Itanium chips in its product line for the foreseeable future even as new versions of our Altix line may incorporate new technologies.
The statement then directed us to check out the blog  of Mark Barrenechea, who is president and chief executive officer at the new SGI and who held that position at Rackable. Barrenechea ends by saying "Read my FLOPS. SGI is 100% committed to Itanium." He explains that the UltraViolet product line was "designed to utilize both Itanium and Xeon processors" but that SGI's "first priority" was to get a Xeon product out the door "based on the strong feedback" that SGI has received from many customers.
He also explained that SGI will "continue to develop and expand" the Altix Itanium line of products and that the company's techies "believe we can continue to develop a common architecture to address both Xeon and Itanium processors".
Well, that was the whole point of QPI, right?
"The Itanium roadmap appears interesting and compelling for many years to come," Barrenechea continued. "And many SGI customers have Itanium systems. SGI will continue to work with our current and new customers to determine the best choice for their microprocessor needs, as we continue to leverage the best world-class microprocessing architecture available."
If you read all these statements carefully, none of them said precisely that SGI would support the future Tukwila Itaniums or when UltraViolet machines using these chips would be available.
While the first generation of UltraViolet machines based on the eight-core Nehalem EX chips will be interesting, particularly if the machine can scale to 512 processor sockets for 4,096 cores and maybe several hundred terabytes of shared main memory, none of this will be useful for the organizations that have compiled applications for the Altix line of Itanium machines. Their code won't run on these Nehalem EX boxes unless they port, compile, and tune it. So they are relegated to buying the existing Altix 4700 lines, which are three years old and not getting any kind of a speed bump from Intel.
What the SGI needs to say is that the old SGI did or did not have Tukwila Itaniums in the UltraViolet plans ahead of the acquisition and then go on to explain precisely what the plan is for Tukwilas today and when customers can expect to see the Altix 5700s or whatever such an Itanium machine might be called. Otherwise, what it looks like SGI is still hedging its bets, hoping that the Nehalem EX versions of the UltraViolet boxes will offer such compelling value, performance, and memory support that customers will be willing to port their code, therefore allowing SGI to change its mind and not use Tukwila at all. ®