SGI talks Windows on Altix UV

Datacenter Edition glows UltraViolet


Supercomputer and general-purpose server maker Silicon Graphics has shed some light on its support for Microsoft's Windows Server on its "UltraViolet" Altix UV 1000 supercomputers.

SGI president and CEO Mark Barrenechea first outted the company's Windows plans during a conference call with Wall Street analysts in early February when discussing the company's fiscal second quarter results.

At the time, SGI didn't say exactly how Windows would be supported on the Altix UV 1000 machines or on what particular configurations. Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 11 and Red Hat's Enterprise Linux 6 are already supported on the high-end Altix UV 1000 boxes, which marry Intel's Xeon 7500 processors and related "Boxboro" chipset with SGI's own NUMAlink 5 high-speed interconnect router.

This mashup creates a shared memory system that has 128 blades with a total of 256 sockets that can support up to 2,048 Xeon 7500 cores and an aggregate of 16TB of global shared memory. The nodes are hooked together in an 8x8 (paired node) 2D torus. This Altix UV 1000 box, which was previewed back in November 2009 and which started shipping them last May, spans four server racks in a full configuration.

SGI also offers a baby Altix UV 100 machine, which creates a shared memory system that has a maximum of 48 blades, 96 sockets, 768 cores, and 6TB of shared memory that packs these blades into two server racks. The nodes are connected in a 2D torus across the NUMAlink 5 interconnect to create the shared memory space.

This is not the first time that SGI has gotten Windows running on its Altix line of parallel supercomputers. SGI VP of product marketing Bill Mannel tells El Reg that smaller configurations of the Altix 4700 supers – predecessors to the Altix UV 1000s – which were based on Intel's Itanium processors and the earlier NUMAlink 4 interconnect router, had a Windows Server port, but it was never formally productized.

And as it turns out, the US Postal Service contract that Barrenechea was bragging about in February's conference call was a cluster of Altix 4700 machines that run Windows as the server, plus Oracle's TimesTen in-memory database. The USPS uses the setup to run fraud-detection systems that process 170 billion pieces of mail per year, and this system is being upgraded to Altix UV 1000 iron.

The Altix UV 100 and Altix UV 1000 machines are being certified to run Microsoft's Windows Server 2008 R2 Datacenter Edition – the top-end version. Mannel says that the engineers who created the NUMAlink 5 interconnect were told to design the hub/router electronics at the heart of the interconnect to efficiently support Linux. But they were also told not do anything that would break compatibility with Windows Server. And so, Windows Server Datacenter Edition can be plunked onto these supercomputers, unmodified, as can Microsoft's Hyper-V server virtualization hypervisor and SQL Server database.

At the moment, Windows Server 2008 R2 Datacenter Edition tops out at 128 cores, 256 threads, and 1TB of main memory – which is a small slice of either an Altix UV 100 or 1000 machine. But the Altix boxes can be equipped with hardware partitions so multiple partitions can run side-by-side in the same box, and then Hyper-V can be used to carve up images within these hard partitions.

An Altix UV 1000 might be very good at running Microsoft's Azure cloud, for instance, and particularly for database images that require big memory slices to perform well. SGI has not yet offered performance metrics for how well Datacenter Edition and SQL Server run on the Altix UV boxes – but those numbers are coming soon, according to Mannel.

Sunny Sundstrom, director of product marketing at SGI, says that at the moment SGI is limited by Microsoft's Windows Server, not by its Altix UV iron, and tells El Reg that the two companies are working on a certification of the Microsoft OS that will be able to span 256 cores and 2TB of memory. This certification is expected sometime in the second quarter of this year. As Microsoft adds more cores, threads, and memory to Windows Server, the already existing iron will be able to support it.

Sundstrom says that SGI is not trying to go head-to-head and toe-to-toe with HP, IBM, and Oracle for their DB2 and Oracle back-end database customers. But there is an opportunity, says Sundstrom, among customers who have large databases running on Xeon or Itanium iron whose workloads do not lend themselves to partitioning databases and running them across clusters of machines. And in some cases, companies want to do data analytics on the same clusters that house their data warehouses, and a shared memory system can be a better fit, performance-wise, for such a dual-purpose machine. This is in contrast to having two clusters and moving data from the warehouse to the analytics cluster to slice and dice the data, or merge it with Web marketing, social media, and other unstructured forms of data.

Moreover, with Itanium being sunsetted with the next version of Windows and SQL Server and already not supported with RHEL 6, SGI thinks that there will be some HP-UX, Windows, or Linux customers running big workloads on HP's Itanium-based Integrity server line who will be looking for another big shared-memory system.

"We also think the other great opportunity is the breadth of applications for Windows," says Sundstrom.

But don't get the wrong idea. Just because the Altix UV machines can run Datacenter Edition and a slew of applications without any modification (including, obviously, lots of homegrown .NET applications), SGI doesn't want to take on the whole Windows world. The company plans to stick with its core HPC market and move out to the adjacencies in data warehousing and analytics. But I don't think SGI will turn down any deals running ERP applications or any other off-the-shelf software, if someone asks. ®

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