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SGI plunks Windows on big Altix UV supers

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High-end cluster and shared-memory supercomputer maker Silicon Graphics radically and quietly expanded its addressable market on Wednesday, announcing that it has certified Microsoft's Windows Server 2008 R2 operating system on its line of Altix UV systems.

The high-end Altix UV 1000 systems are based on Intel's Xeon 7500 series of processors and use a modified version of the chip maker's Boxboro 7500 series chipset that links into SGI's proprietary, high-speed NUMAlink 5 interconnect. With that interconnect, you can build a giant 256-socket shared-memory system that has 2,048 cores – and up until now, you had to use Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 11 or Red Hat Enterprise Linux 6 to span these sockets and cores.

But now the Altix UV 1000 shared-memory, multi-blade server does Windows, and so does its midrange brother the Altix UV 100, and their baby sister the Altix UV 10.

The Altix UV 1000 made its debut at the SC09 supercomputing conference in November 2009 and began shipping at the end of May 2010. The smaller Altix UV boxes were announced in April 2010 and started shipping shortly thereafter. The Altix UV 10 machine is no big deal, being a pretty standard four-socket Xeon 7500 machine, and it had already supported Windows alongside of SLES and RHEL Linuxes.

Adding Windows Server 2008 R2 support to the Altix UV 100 and 1000 machines is a different matter entirely, and marks a shift that SGI, in previous incarnations, has tried to make before. Remember SGI's first and failed foray into supporting Windows NT on its workstations more than a decade ago? And its attempt to position its Itanium-based Altix machines as Java and database servers?

This is a slightly different SGI this time around, backed up by the commercial server business that came from the Rackspace portion of the new SGI. Perhaps this time SGI will get it right.

First and foremost, SGI has ditched the Itanium processor that has been at the heart of its shared-memory supers for the past decade in favor of the more standard Intel Xeon chip. That means it can position its Altix UV 100 and 1000 machines running either Linux or Windows Server as a credible alternative to an Itanium, Power, or Sparc system.

In a conference call with Wall Street analysts, SGI president and CEO Mark Barrenechea – once the man in charge of application development at Oracle – wanted to make it clear that SGI was not interested in the low end of the server market, but rather sold systems at the rack or row scale in the data center, and was absolutely going to chase customers who want scalable Windows systems.

Last year, Red Hat pulled the plug on RHEL 6 support on Itanium chips, and Microsoft subsequently said that Windows Server 20008 R2 would be the last release to run on the Itanic. With eight-socket Xeon 7500 machines petering out at somewhere around 512 GB to 1TB of main memory (depending on the machine and excluding some memory extension technologies offered by IBM and Cisco Systems, and presumably using only 8 GB DIMMs in Barrenechea's comparison) and 64 cores, SGI thinks it can now chase big Linux and Windows deals that others cannot with their machines.

"SGI has a chance to take a leadership position in large-scale Windows environments," Barrenechea explained. This includes new Windows workloads that can benefit from the global shared-memory model implemented in the Altix UV 100 and 1000 systems, as well as existing customers who are running out of gas on four-socket and eight-socket boxes and do not want to move (or cannot move) to clustered environments that don't have shared memory across server nodes.

SGI did not provide a customer count for how many Altix customers it added in the quarter, but Barrenechea did provide some guidance on the addressable market that SGI was running after with the Xeon-based shared memory Altix machines. He said that traditional high-end HPC workloads - running simulations and models - represented about a $1bn potential market, and that Itanium/RISC system replacements among customers that want to shift to more standard x64 architectures also represented $1bn or more in market opportunity.

Another $1bn or more in opportunity comes from "big data" jobs that customers want to increasingly run on Linux or Windows platforms. This includes data warehouses and analytics applications that hammer Oracle 11g and SQL Server databases (both of which are now supported on the Altix line) as well as funkier workloads such as Hadoop crunching and Memcached Web caching.

The Windows stack, including Windows Server 2008 R2 and its Hyper-V hypervisor, plus SQL Server and the HPC Server extensions to the operating system, are now certified to run on both the Altix UV 100 and 1000 machines. Barrenechea kept referring to something he called "Excel Server" as being certified on the box, and he was no doubt talking about the Excel 2010 clustering feature, which works in conjunction with Windows HPC Server 2008 R2 to parallelize and execute Excel workbook macros on a spreadsheet running on a Windows 7 workstation that is connected to a Windows-x64 cluster.

The Altix UV 100 is a blade server design that slides two blades horizontally into a 3U chassis. It uses the NUMAlink 5 interconnect to implement a 2D torus where the server nodes in the cluster can share a single global address space spanning up to 6TB for applications and data. The Altix UV 100 can have up to 48 two-socket blades in a single system image, for a maximum of between 384 to 768 cores accessing that memory depending on how many cores are on each Intel Xeon 7500 processors. Each 3U chassis in the Altix UV system holds two blades, and full-out the Altix UV 100 has two racks with a total of 24 of these enclosures.

The Altix UV 1000 is based on an 18U enclosure that holds 16 vertical blades, for a total of 256 sockets and up to 2,048 cores if you use the eight-core Xeon 7500s. The machine implements an 8x8 (paired node) 2D torus interconnect, which delivers up to 16TB of global shared memory for Linux, Windows, and applications to frolic within.

It is not clear yet how well Windows Server 2008 or SQL Server 2008 scale on the Altix UV machines. That is one of the things that El Reg is going to be digging into now that Windows is supported on these boxes.

Wouldn't it be funny if HP and Dell inked a reseller agreement with SGI to resell the Altix UV 100 and 1000 machines? Or if HP or Dell bought SGI outright? Stranger things have happened in the systems racket, as you well know. ®

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