Penguin Computing overclocks Opterons for Wall Street

Shifts Linux into extra gear

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Linux server specialist Penguin Computing has jumped into the overclocked server fray with a new Altus server aimed at clock-hungry high frequency stock trading applications.

At the HPC on Wall Street Conference in New York City this week, Penguin Computing is showing off its Altus 1750 server, which is built using Advanced Micro Devices' "Lisbon" Opteron 4100 processors and its homegrown chipsets. The 1U rack-mounted server has three things that companies running high frequency trading systems want: density, low power consumption, and relatively high clock speeds.

The Opteron 4100s only sport four or six cores per C32 socket, while the fatter Opteron 6100s (codenamed "Magny-Cours") put two of these Lisbon dies side-by-side in a single package to yield a fatter 8-core or 12-core chip that plunks into a G34 socket. But stock and bond traders like these lesser-cored chips because their clock speeds are generally higher and for a lot of applications, which have not been properly parallelized, faster clocks across fewer cores means better performance than more cores or threads running at a lower speed.

As we reported in our coverage of the Opteron 4100 launch last June, AMD kicked out nine different Lisbon processors, with seven of them with six cores running at between 1.7GHz and 2.8GHz and wattage ratings (using AMD's ACP scale) at 32, 50, or 75 watts. There are also two four-core Lisbon chips that run at 2.2GHz or 2.6GHz and cost $99 or $125 rated at 75 watts. These are the cheapest server-class processors on the market.

The Magny-Cours Opteron 6100s were launched in March 2010 and there were ten different models put into the field, with five eight-core models ranging in speed from 1.8GHz to 2.4GHz and five 12-core models with speeds between 1.7GHz and 2.3GHz. These chips have ACP ratings of 65, 80, or 105 watts. In February of this year, AMD added five more slightly faster Opteron 6100 processors, goosing the top-end 12-core speed to 2.5GHz and the eight-core speed to 2.6GHz.

You might not think that a couple of hundred megahertz wouldn't matter, but when it comes to high frequency trading, it makes the difference between making lots of money and losing lots money.

And that is why Penguin Computing is going to get some attention with the new Altus 1750 server and its overclocked Opteron 4100 processors. This server can be equipped with any of the original Opteron 4100 processors announced last June, but can also be equipped with two other non-standard Opteron parts from AMD. These include the four-core Opteron 4139, which runs at 3.1GHz and is rated at 95 watts; and the four-core Opteron 4145, which runs at 3.5GHz and is rated at 126 watts. (You can see now why chasing clock speeds doesn't work for most commercial applications any more - power consumption goes up with exponentially with clock speed.) The configurator at Penguin Computing said it was also able to use a six-core Opteron 4186, which runs at 2.9GHz and is rated at 75 watts on the ACP scale, but AMD tells El Reg that this chip is not actually available. (And since this story has run, Penguin Computing has scrubbed the overclocked parts from its configurator, too, but admits to using them. AMD also confirmed it is selling them as well.)

Penguin Computing Altus 1750

Penguin Computing's Altus 1750 overclocked server

The Altus 1750 server is a two-socket box that comes in a standard 1U pizza box chassis for mounting into server racks. The machine is based on AMD's SR5690/SP5100 chipset and has six DDR3 memory slots per socket for a total of a dozen. Penguin Computing is supporting memory sticks with 2GB, 4GB, 8GB, and 16GB capacities, for a total of 128GB. It is not clear if Penguin Computing is advising customers to use low-voltage memory, but the memory controller on the Opteron 4100s can support it, and it saves about a watt per stick if you do it.

The Altus 1750 has four front-mounted 3.5-inch drive bays and supports SATA or SAS disk drives (in speeds ranging from 5,400 to 15,000 RPM) You can also plug solid state disks into the box if you want higher I/Os and lower power draw and heat dissipation on the storage. The box also has two PCI-Express 2.0 x16 peripheral slots and can be equipped with either InfiniBand adapters from QLogic or Mellanox or 10 Gigabit Ethernet adapters from Intel or Chelsio. The server is only 25.4 inches deep, and it would be interesting to see Penguin Computing put together a shallower rack that would let more iron be crammed into a small data center.

Like other Altus servers using Opteron processors, Penguin Computing certifies the current Red Hat Enterprise Linux, its CentOS clone, and Novell SUSE Linux Enterprise Server variants of the Linux operating system on the Altus 1750.

These overclocked Opteron 4100 processors don't require the machine to be in a 2U form factor to improve airflow or require a 4U form factor to support water-blocks on the processors and memory, as some other overclocked servers do. And that is one reason, Charles Wuischpard, CEO at Penguin Computing, tells El Reg that he expects some enthusiastic uptake of the Altus 1750s at brokerage, trading, and hedge fund companies where space and power is a premium. "We grew at over 100 per cent last year, and a good chunk of that was thanks to Wall Street," says Wuischpard.

The company does not publish prices of its servers, but Wuischpard said that a configured Altus 1750 box with two 3.5GHz Opteron 4145 processors and 32GB would run somewhere between $5,000 and $8,000, depending on disk and other I/O features. The base box costs a mere $800 without processor, memory, and disk. The Altus 1750 is available now. ®

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