Sun shoots for the stars with Constellation HPC

Launch marks company's return to the supercomputer market

Sun is shipping its new Constellation high-performance computing product, marking a return to the HPC market it had left in the late 1990s to serve the growing dot-com market. Sun hope the Constellation warrants inclusion in the biannual Top 500 Supercomputers list of HPC installations at universities, government research centers and enterprises. Sun also sees enterprises buying an HPC system rather than the conventional data center array of servers.

Sun is returning to the high-performance computing market with Monday's first shipments of its Constellation System.

Constellation is a cluster of blade servers, InfiniBand switches, StorageTek storage hardware and multicore processors running on open source Solaris or Linux operating systems. Sun says a Constellation being installed at the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) at the University of Texas in Austin will crunch data at a rate of 500 Tflops. A teraflop is a measure of computing performance at the rate of 1 trillion computing instructions per second. Sun also says Constellation is scalable to 2 petaflops, which is 2,000 Tflops.

Sun is launching Constellation at the Supercomputing Conference this week in Reno, Nev., at which the industry's biannual top-500 list of the world's fastest high-performance computers (HPC) is to be released. Constellation doesn't yet qualify for the list because the TACC installation isn't expected to be completed until January, but may qualify for the next top-500 list due out in June 2008. 

If its 500 Tflops performance can be verified, it would beat the current champion, an IBM BlueGene/L supercomputer that clocked in at 280.6 Tflops, leading the top-500 list released in June. However, IBM has already announced it's developing BlueGene/P, which it claims hits the 3 Pflops mark.

Still, “[Constellation] looks like a very competitive product,” says James Staten, principal analyst at Forrester Research. “It marks a very strong return to the HPC market for Sun.”

Sun had specialized in high-performance computers until the dot-com boom of the late 1990s, when it shifted focus to industry standard servers to sell to all the start-ups tied to the Internet, Staten said. Like other computer makers, Sun now sees that there is a potential market for HPCs beyond university, government or select industry research centers and into enterprise data centers.

“This is along term commitment from Sun to really go after the HPC market,” says Bjorn Andersson, director of HPC and integrated systems at Sun.

Sun first shared details of the Constellation project in June before the last International Supercomputing Conference in Dresden, Germany.

The TACC Ranger cluster, as it's called, features 48 Sun Blade 6000 model servers per rack and will run on AMD's quad-core Opteron processors, though Constellations can also run on Sun's own UltraSPARC T2 or Intel's Xeon processors.

Scalability comes from InfiniBand-based Sun Datacenter Switch 3456 switches, so named because they feature 3,456 ports in one switch, Andersson says. The switches connect the servers to an array of Sun Fire X4500 storage devices.

The beauty of Constellation is that it is built of industry standard components and open source software, said Andy Bechtolsheim, Sun's chief architect and senior vice president of the systems group, at the briefing. IBM's BlueGene HPCs, by contrast, are custom-made, which takes longer and costs more to build.

"Our observation is that industry-standard open architecture has caught up with special-purpose computers," Bechtolsheim said.

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